Q: When you use “every” multiple times in a sentence, do the subjects still take a singular verb? For example, “Every man and every woman is/are entitled to fair pay.” The singular seems right, but can you help me understand why?
A: You can use either a singular or a plural verb when “every” appears one or more times in a compound subject joined by “and,” but the singular usage is more common.
As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, “When every modifies two or more nouns joined by and, there is mixed usage, at least, in part, because of the rule that compound subjects joined by and are both grammatically and notionally plural.”
However, “every,” the usage guide adds, “tends to emphasize each noun separately,” and “our evidence shows that the singular verb is more common.”
Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), edited by Jeremy Butterfield, agrees that when “every modifies two or more nouns joined by and, the verb should, technically, be plural, according to the notion that compound subjects conjoined by and are plural.”
But “the more common pattern is for the verb to be singular,” Fowler’s says. “The principle at work presumably is that the verb agrees in number with the last stated subject.”
An example from Fowler’s: “Every shot, every colour, every prop, and every costume tells its own story” (Oxford English Corpus, 2001).
We’ll add that a search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares phrases in digitized books, indicates that the singular usage is much more common.
(Ngram Viewer doesn’t compare phrases longer than five words, so one “every” modifies two nouns in our searches: “every man and woman is” versus “every man and woman are.”)
As for the history of the usage, Merriam-Webster’s says “the possibility of nouns joined by and being considered individually and thus taking a singular verb has been recognized as early as Lowth 1762.”
We found this passage in A Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762), by Robert Lowth: “But sometimes, after an enumeration of particulars thus connected, the Verb follows in the Singular Number; and is understood as applied to each of the preceding terms.”
The use of singular verbs with “every” compounds was well established long before Lowth’s grammar book. Here’s an example from the late 17th century:
“So every man and every woman is to seek God for themselves; for he hath promised to be found of them that seek, him in uprightness of heart” (Truth Held Forth and Maintained According to the Testimony of the Holy Prophets, Christ and His Apostles Recorded in the Holy Scriptures, 1695, by Thomas Mall).
And here’s a much earlier plural example from a treatise by an English Roman Catholic priest who became an anti-Catholic writer:
“By popish doctrine every man and every woman of lawfull yeeres, are bound vnder paine of damnation, to the said confession” (from Thomas Bels Motiues Concerning Romish Faith and Religion, 1593, by Thomas Bell).
We’ll end with recent examples of the singular and plural usages from the Irish novelist John Banville and the Scottish novelist Andrew O’Hagan:
“As Nietzsche said, every man and every woman is an artist when he or she sleeps—we make up worlds” (Banville, speaking at the Dalkey Book Festival, June 18, 2022).
“Every man and every woman are their own Rosebud, and the web can’t hide it” (O’Hagan, writing in The Guardian, June 17, 2017).