Either/or - plural or singular verb
 
When a subject is made up of two elements joined by or or nor, the verb is singular if both elements are singular. If one of the elements is plural, the verb becomes plural. For example:
  • Shortbread or cake is on offer.
  • Chocolates or cake are on offer.
 

Singular Verb with Singular Elements

If the pairings either/or (often the either is omitted) or neither/nor form part of the subject of a verb and both elements are singular, then the verb must be singular too. For example:

  • Neither Mark nor Dawn is at the function.
  • (As Mark is singular (i.e., one person) and Dawn is singular, then is is correct. (The plural version are would be wrong.)

  • Neither Dickens nor Thackeray was a panderer to the public taste.
  • Dickens (singular), Thackeray (singular), was (singular – i.e., not were panderers)

  • Either the clerk or the secretary has the keys to the Rover.
  • clerk (singular), secretary (singular), has (singular – i.e., not have)

  • Neither Simon nor Gary do as they are told.
  • Simon (singular), Gary (singular), do (plural – should be does)

  • Either a mouse or a rat eats the cable at night.

Plural Verb with a Plural Element

If the pairings either/or (often the either is omitted) or neither/nor form part of the subject of a verb and at least one of the elements is plural, then the verb must be plural too. For example:

  • Neither the lawyer nor the detectives are able to follow the sequence of events.
  • lawyer (singular – i.e., one person), detectives (plural - i.e., more than one person), are (plural - i.e., not is)

  • There were neither cakes nor ice-cream at the party.

  • Neither the firemen nor the policemen know him.
  • (i.e., not knows)

  • Either the budgies or the cat has to go.

Proximity Rule

Not all grammar conventions agree with the ruling above.  In fact, there is notable leniency on whether to use a plural or singular verb when one of the elements is plural.  Under the proximity rule, the verb is governed by the element nearest to it.

Examples:

  • Either crumpets or cake is sufficient.
  • ( under standard convention; should be are sufficient)
    ( under the proximity rule – cake governs is because it is the nearest element.)

  • There was neither ice-cream nor chocolates at the party.
  • ( under standard convention; should be were because of chocolates is a plural word.)
    ( under the proximity rule – ice-cream governs was because it is the nearest element.)
     
    ELEMENTS? 

    The elements are the words which follow either, or, neither or nor. (The elements are in bold in the first example below:

    • Neither Mark nor Dawn is at the function.
    • (elements in bold)
    • Either tea and crumpets or cake are sufficient.
    • (elements in bold)
     
     
    GO FOR IT 

    Sometimes, it may sound wrong to use the singular form of the verb. Be confident and, if both elements are singular, use the singular form.

    • Neither Jeremy nor Sarah was in the shop at the time of the theft.
    • (i.e., not were in the shop)
     


    See also:

    Either/or and neither/nor (beware the double negative)
    List of easily confused words


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