either is a word that causes endless problems not only for writers but also sometimes for those who wish to guide them. The style manual for the London Times, for instance, states flatly that "neither takes a singular verb, e.g., 'Neither Bert nor Fred has any idea.'" That is true enough, to be sure, for examples involving Bert and Fred or any other two singular items, but what if the items are plural?

According to the Times guide, we would have to write, "Neither the men nor the women is dressed yet," which would be irregular, to say the very least. And what if there is a mixture of singular and plural? Again, according to the strictures of the Times Guide to English Style and Usage, as it is formally known, we would have to write, "Neither the farmer nor his fifty cows was in the field," and again we would be grammatically eccentric.

The rule, as you will gather, is slightly more complicated than is sometimes taught --- but not so complicated that it should cause such persistent problems. Briefly put, in neither ... nor constructions, the verb should always agree with the noun nearest it. Thus, "Neither De Niro nor his agent were available for comment" should be "was available for comment." Since the noun nearest the verb (agent) is singular, so the verb should be singular. However, when the noun nearest the verb is plural, the verb should also be plural: "Neither the President nor his advisers were available for comment."

hen neither is used on its own, without the nor, the verb should always be singular: "Neither of the men was ready;" "Neither of us is hungry."

In short, more often than not a singular verb is called for but that singularity is by no means invariable. Try to remember that neither emphasizes the separateness of items. It doesn't add them together, at least not grammatically.

Finally, note that a neither ... or combination is always wrong, as here: "[The] movie mixes horror with science fiction to make something that is fun as neither one thing or the other" (New York Times). Make it nor. The following sentence makes the same error and the additional one of failing to provide a grammatical balance between the neither phrase and the nor phrase: "Borrowing which allows a country to live beyond its means serves neither the interests of the borrower or the financial community" (Times). Make it "serves the interests of neither the borrower nor the financial community."

--- From Bryson's Dictionary of
Troublesome Words

Bill Bryson
©2002, Broadway Books
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