The Grammarphobia Blog

Invasion of the brainworms

Q: During the college football bowls, an advertiser proclaimed that “by the end of this game, you or your company can have its own [x].” That sentence is now a worm in my brain. Should “its” have been “your”? Help!

A: When a compound subject is joined by “or” or “nor,” the verb agrees with the part that’s closer (“Cookies or cake is fine” … “Cake or cookies are fine”).

The same is true of any accompanying possessive pronoun (“Cookies or cake has its uses” … “Cake or cookies have their uses”). Take your cue from the part of the subject that’s nearer the verb.

But correct or not, this rule of subject-verb agreement can lead to extremely awkward sentences.

If the problem is that one part of the subject is singular and the other plural (as in the examples above), it often pays to put the plural part last: “Cake or cookies have their uses.”

This solution won’t give anybody a brainworm, because despite the “or” there’s a notion of plurality in that kind of sentence.

To use another example, it may be correct to write, “Neither they nor she has paid her tab.” But it sounds better to turn the subject around: “Neither she nor they have paid their tab.”

The problem isn’t as easy to fix when a compound consists of a “you” and an “it.” Technically, that advertiser was correct: “By the end of this game, you or your company can have its own [x].” But ouch!

And turning the subject around doesn’t help: “your company or you can have your own [x].” Ouch again!

Any sentence that leaves a worm in your brain should be recast, even if it’s written by the rules. There’s always a better way.

For example, the advertiser could have said, “ By the end of this game, you or your company can have an all new, one-of-a kind [x].”

Speaking of brainworms, you don’t hear the usage much nowadays, except in zoology, where the term “brainworm” refers to a parasitic roundworm that infects the brains of deer, moose, and other large hoofed animals.

However, the term has been used figuratively since the early 1600s to describe an imaginative worm infecting the brain, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s an example from Antiquity Revived, a 1693 religious tract: “Which undutiful and turbulent Allegation has not seldom created such a restless Brain-worm in the noddles of the multitude.”

The latest OED citation for the figurative use is from Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, a 2007 book in which Oliver Sacks discusses the earworms set off by movie, TV, and advertising music:

“This is not coincidental, for such music is designed, in the terms of the music industry, to ‘hook’ the listener, to be ‘catchy’ or ‘sticky,’ to bore its way, like an earwig, into the ear or mind; hence the term ‘earworms’—though one might be inclined to call them ‘brainworms’ instead.”

We hope this helps you get rid of that brainworm of yours.

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