Is 'Either' Singular or Plural?

by Craig Shrives
The Quick Answer
Treat "either" and "neither" as singular. For example:
  • Either is acceptable.
  • Neither of the boys is trying.
When "or" or "nor" joins two things, use a singular verb if both things are singular. However, if one of the things is plural, use a plural verb. For example:
  • Shortbread or cake is on offer.
  • ("Shortbread" and "cake" are singular.)
  • Chocolates or cake are on offer.
  • ("Chocolates" is plural.)
Be mindful though that many writers follow the Proximity Rule. This states that the thing nearest the verb governs it. For example:
  • Chocolates or cake is on offer.
  • (Using the Proximity Rule, the verb becomes singular because "cake," which is the nearest thing, is singular.)

"Either" and "Neither" Are Singular

"Either" and "neither" are singular concepts. (They contrast with the word "both.")

The word "either" can be a pronoun or a determiner. "Either" means "one or the other of two things." It attracts a singular verb.

The word "neither" can also be a pronoun or a determiner. It means "not one nor the other of two things, i.e., not either." It also attracts a singular verb.

Examples Showing "Either" and "Neither" As Singular

Here are some examples showing "either" and "neither" as singular concepts:
  • Either car is available.
  • (Here, "either" is a determiner modifying "car." The term "either car" is singular.)
  • Either is available.
  • (Here, "either" is a pronoun. It is singular.)

  • Neither man is suitable.
  • (Here, "neither" is a determiner modifying "man." The term "neither man" is singular.)
  • Neither of the men is suitable.
  • (Here, "neither" is a pronoun. It is singular.)

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 is singular too. For example:
  • Neither Mark nor Dawn is at the function.
  • (As "Mark" is singular and "Dawn" is singular, then "is" is correct. Using "are" would be wrong.)
  • Neither Dickens nor Thackeray was a panderer to the public taste.
  • (As "Dickens" is singular and "Thackeray" is singular, "was" is correct; i.e., "were" would be wrong.)
  • Either the clerk or the secretary has the keys to the Land Rover.
  • (As "clerk" is singular and "secretary" is singular, "has" is correct; i.e., "have" would be wrong.)
  • Either a mouse or a rat eats the cable at night.
  • Neither Simon nor Gary do as they are told.
  • (As "Simon" is singular and "Gary" is singular, "do" is wrong. It should be "does." NB: Sometimes, you have to look further down the sentence too. This should be "does as he is told.")
Read about using "his/her" and "their" as singular concepts.

Plural Verb with a Plural Element

If the pairings "either/or" or "neither/nor" form part of the subject 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.
  • (Here, "lawyer" is singular, but "detectives" is plural. Therefore, "are" is correct.)
  • There were neither cakes nor ice-cream at the party.
  • Neither the firemen nor the policemen know him.
  • (Here, "knows," which is singular, would be wrong.)
  • Either the budgies or the cat has to go.
  • (This should be "have" because "budgies" is plural.)

Infographic Explaining Verb Agreement with "Either/Or" and "Neither/Nor"

either/or singular or plural?
Correlative Conjunctions and the Elements

The pairings "either/or" and "neither/nor" are known as correlative conjunctions. The words that follow "either," "or," "neither," and "nor" are known as the elements.
  • Neither Mark nor Dawn is at the function.
  • (Here, the elements are in bold.)
  • Either tea and crumpets or cake are sufficient.
  • (Here, the elements are in bold.)
Be Brave with the Ruling

Sometimes, it may sound wrong to use the singular form of the verb. Be confident. If both elements are singular, use the singular form. For example:
  • Neither Jeremy nor Sarah was in the shop at the time of the theft.
  • (Here, "was" is correct. Using "were" would be wrong.)

Proximity Rule

Not all grammar conventions follow the ruling above. Under a ruling known as the "Proximity Rule," the verb is governed by the element nearest to it. For example:
  • Either crumpets or cake is sufficient.
  • (Under standard convention, this should read "are sufficient" because "crumpets" is plural. However, 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, this should read "were" because "chocolates" is plural. However, under the Proximity Rule, "ice-cream" governs "was" because it is the nearest element.)
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

Unusual plurals What are correlative conjunctions? Either/or and neither/nor (beware the double negative) Can they be singular? Are collective nouns singular or plural? Singular or plural after a prepositional phrase? Subject/verb agreement