The Grammarphobia Blog

Compound chemistry

Q: Should the verb agree with the nearest noun (as Words Into Type states) if all the nouns are singular and in series (“The red, green and blue that is/are the choice of the school”)?

A: The style guide Words Into Type is talking about a different kind of series than the one you mention.

When two or more nouns are joined by “and” to form a compound subject, as in your example, the subject is plural and gets a plural verb. (There are a few exceptions that we discussed in a recent posting.)

This is true no matter whether the individual nouns are singular or plural. When they’re added together, they’re plural: “Red, green, and white are more harmonious than the red, green, and blue that are the choice of the school.”

But it’s a different story when the parts aren’t joined by “and.” When a compound subject is an “either/or” pair, as in “either pancakes or an omelet,” then the verb agrees with the nearest part of the compound. For example:

(1) “Either pancakes or an omelet is being served for breakfast.”

(2) “Either an omelet or pancakes are being served for breakfast.”

This is probably what you’re referring to. Words Into Type discusses it in a section called “Plural and singular substantives joined by ‘or’ or ‘nor.’ ”

We’ll end this posting with an excerpt about the either/or problem from the third edition of Pat’s grammar and usage book Woe Is I (page 50):

“Often the subject of a sentence—whoever or whatever is doing the action—is a two-headed creature with or or nor in the middle: Milk or cream is fine, thank you.

“When both halves of the subject—the parts on either side of or or nor—are singular, so is the verb: Neither alcohol nor tobacco is allowed. When both halves are plural, so is the verb: Ties or cravats are required.

“But how about when one half is singular and the other plural? Do you choose a singular or a plural verb? Neither the eggs nor the milk [was or were] fresh.

“The answer is simple. If the part nearer the verb is singular, the verb is singular: Neither the eggs nor the milk was fresh. If the part nearer the verb is plural, the verb is plural: Neither the milk nor the eggs were fresh. (Treat or the same way, whether or not you use it with either: Is the milk or the eggs returnable? Are either the eggs or the milk returnable?)

“The same rule applies when subjects are paired with not only and but also: Not only the chairs but also the table was sold. Or: Not only the table but also the chairs were sold.”

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