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Answer: Verbs after indefinite pronouns and neither/nor

This week we get two related questions for the price of one. rykaine wants to know, "What are the appropriate conjugations for verbs following either, neither, none, each, etc.?" And earth2skye asks, "Should it be a singular or plural verb after 'neither he nor'?"

With examples from QI, The Sentinel, and Jeeves and Wooster.

Ah, the indefinite pronouns. A classic example of education running smack up against usage. If you finish reading this and find yourself with the urge to write a gently corrective letter to your 6th grade English teacher, well, I won’t stop you.

Let’s start with the easy ones:

Either, neither, and each are singular in construction, along with another, anybody, anyone, anything, everybody, everyone, everything, little, much, no one, nobody, nothing, one, other, somebody, someone, and something.

Then there are the indefinite pronouns that are always plural: both, few, many, others, and several.

None, however, is tricky. Along with all, any, most, and some, it can be either singular or plural depending on context and emphasis. But many of us were taught that it is always singular, as terrifically demonstrated by the incomparable Stephen Fry here. (Video)

As delightful as I find that clip, here we have the frightfully intelligent and well-educated Fry being, well, a little too traditional. Although none evolved from the Old English nan, meaning “not one”, most sources agree that none can mean either “not one” or ”not any” — so it could be singular or plural. If you go to Merriam-Webster online and type in “none,” you’ll notice that right there in the link it says “none (pronoun, singular or plural in construction)”. Even the Oxford English Dictionary asserts that “[none] has been used for around a thousand years with either a singular or a plural verb” (Compact OED Online).

So to return to Stephen Fry vs. Alan Davies:

“None [not one] of them works.” (Fry)
“None [not any] of them work.” (Davies, though he seems not to know it)

Why does Fry correct Davies if either is acceptable? Well, mostly because it’s fun to watch Alan Davies squirm. But also because — due to the original meaning of nan as “not one” — none has been taught as only a singular in many classrooms. (Yeah, I’m lookin’ at you, Mrs. Mackey.) Despite the long history of none as a plural, the more classically educated among us tend to insist that it is always singular.

Although either is largely accepted, there does seem to be a usage shift going on here. A generation ago, you were much more likely to see none as a singular. In contemporary usage, though, it’s more likely to be plural. The usage shift seems to be happening hand-in-hand with growing acceptance of they/them in place of a third person singular gender-neutral human/animate personal pronoun (that is, a version of it that can refer to people), which English lacks. Still, I wouldn’t try this in a piece of formal writing.

Blair knows that something has to change when none of his students hand in their essays on time.

The extent to which none is becoming accepted as a plural can be seen in this frequently cited guideline: When none means "none of them," it’s plural. When none means "none of it," it’s singular. Following this guideline would make most uses of none plural.

“Jim, what the hell is going on here? None of the details add up.”

“I can’t explain it, Simon. None of the evidence shows any sign of being tampered with.”

I’ve talked a lot about none — what about the other indefinite pronouns that can be either singular or plural? Look at the context. The verb agrees with the subject, not the object of the preposition. (See last week’s post by verilyverity for more details!) But when the pronoun can be singular or plural, we look to the remainder of the sentence — usually the object of the preposition — to tell us which to use.

All of Blair’s possessions were in the warehouse.
All of the warehouse was destroyed in the explosion.
Some of the Major Crimes detectives were quick to respect Blair’s theories.
Some is better than none.

And now to earth2skye’s question: should it be a singular or plural verb after “neither he nor…”?

One might think that since neither is a singular pronoun, neither/nor should always take a singular verb. But in this construction, neither is serving not as a pronoun but as a conjunction. So either/or and neither/nor pairings follow the same agreement rules as any compound subject joined by or: If the subject has two singular nouns or pronouns, the verb should be singular. But if you have a singular and a plural, the verb should agree with the subject closest to it.

Neither Gussie nor poor Boffo stands a chance against the gale force of Stiffy Bing in a snit.

Compare that use of neither/nor as a conjunction pair with neither as a singular pronoun:

Of course, as neither of them has the common sense of one of Gussie's newts, they held their ground as she bore down upon them with the dog Bartholomew bounding at her heels.

In the first, the compound subject is Gussie|Boffo, joined by the conjunction neither/nor. The verb is singular because the subject closest to it, Boffo, is singular. In the second, the subject of the introductory clause is neither. Since neither is in that list of pronouns that are always singular, it takes the singular verb form even though we go on to talk about "them" and "they".

Either/or, also a conjunction pair, follows the same rules as neither/nor.

Either the gaudy silver trinkets or Anatole’s roasted pheasant was sure to cheer old Uncle Tom, loosen his purse-strings, and rescue Milady’s Boudoir from the soup.

Even though the first part of the subject, trinkets, is plural, the subject closest to the verb is singular, so we get a singular verb.

So to return to earth2skye's question of whether it should be a singular or plural verb after neither he nor..., the answer is that it depends on whether the word that comes after nor is singular or plural. The examples above are singular, but if the word after nor is plural, the verb should be as well.

Neither Jeeves nor all the disapproving aunts in the world were going to prevent me donning that absolutely spiffing lavender waistcoat for the occasion.

These are both tricky issues for many fic writers. We are told to trust our ear. But indefinite pronouns often have a prepositional phrase between them and the verb, so our ear may latch on to the object of the preposition and lead us astray. And it can be difficult for some of us to think of either and neither as conjunctions rather than pronouns. The best advice I can give is to learn to identify your subject, and remember that it's the subject that the verb must agree with.

For future reference, find a list of indefinite pronouns here.
Tags: !answer, author:mendax, pos:pronouns, pos:verbs, word choice:correct use, writing tips:structure

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