Writing Tip Wednesday: Subject-Verb Agreement (Pt 2)

Dear Master’s Programs student,

(If you missed last week’s SVA post, you can find it here.)

One rule that sometimes causes writers problems is “either/or” and “neither/nor.”  In the patterns “Either or B” and “Neither nor B,” the verb of a sentence must agree with B.  In other words, if B (the word following “or”) is singular, the verb must reflect that.Calvin-and-Hobbes-in-Snow

For example, “Neither the participants nor the researcher was aware which group was the control.”  In this sentence, “the researcher” is the B item, so it determines the grammatical number of the verb (in this case, singular).

Compare with this: “Neither the researcher nor the participants were aware which group was the control.”  Notice that since “the participants” is placed in the B position, the verb must now match “the participants” (hence a plural verb, were).

[Also note: if you type these sentences with subject-verb “disagreement” into Word, the grammar check will not detect the error.]

Keep in mind, however, that “either” and “neither” by themselves (i.e. without “or” or “nor”) are always singular.

For example, “Either is a fine choice,” or “Neither of them was able to complete the assignment without consulting a textbook.

Fun etymology of the week: “None” is a combination of “not” + “one,” so many grammarians argue that it should always be treated as a singular word (since “one” is singular).  However, the rule on “none” is not settled, so some believe that a sentence like “None of the higher education administrators were supportive of the council’s recommendations” is acceptable.

Next week will be the penultimate episode of our subject-verb agreement mini-series.

Happy writing!
James

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