Grammergency #15: The Pronoun Predicament
Contributor
Written by
Annie Tucker
June 2015
Contributor
Written by
Annie Tucker
June 2015

I recently got an e-mail asking me which of the following sentences is grammatically correct:

“As we walked past the house, neither Mr. Smith nor his daughter were in the yard”

or:

“As we walked past the house, neither Mr. Smith nor his daughter was in the yard.”

The second sentence, which uses “was,” is the correct one, but beyond that, this exchange got me thinking about a larger pattern I’ve been noticing: the pairing of singular antecedents with plural modifiers. These erroneous combinations are everywhere, from TV shows to advertisements to books, and today I’m going to talk about why they don’t work.

Either, Neither, and None

“Either,” “neither,” and “none” are all singular pronouns, meaning “the one or the other,” “not the one or the other of two or more,” and “not one,” respectively. You’ll notice that the common thread in all of these pronouns is the word “one.” That’s your cue that any verb or pronoun that modifies these antecedents should also be singular—which is why the verb “was” in the second sentence above is the right choice to follow “neither.”

The same principle applies to “either” and “none”—e.g., “either of these desserts is delicious” (not “are delicious”) and “none of these people is helping me” (not “are helping me”). If you can’t tell which verb form to use, try rewording the sentence in question to include the word “one,” as in “either one of these desserts is delicious” and “not one of these people is helping me.”

Anyone and Everyone

Similarly, the antecedents “anyone,” “everyone,” “no one,” “somebody,” “everybody,” “nobody,” and so on are all singular as well. It’s become so common for plural pronouns to modify these terms—e.g., “everyone took off their coat” or “nobody likes having their secrets revealed”—that most of the time you can get away with this kind of grammatical disagreement, especially in everyday conversation, but if you want your writing to adhere to formal grammar rules, be aware that the proper match for any of these singular antecedents is still a singular pronoun, as in “everyone took off his or her coat” or “nobody likes having his or her secrets revealed.”

A less clunky option, if you want to avoid this mind-bender altogether, is simply to recast these sentences with a plural antecedent, instead of a singular one—e.g., “All the guests took off their coats” or “People never like having their secrets revealed.” There’s no shame in a work-around—as long as it works.

Have a grammar question? Leave it in the comments below.

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Comments
  • Mary Schenkenberg

    The rule I most often hear misused involves the use of fewer and less.  I hear it misused everywhere, from advertisements to sports commentators, to NPR guests and hosts.  I remember it by “fewer items; less mass.”  For example:  fewer dollars, less cost.  Or fewer bananas; less fruit;  or fewer sales, less business.  etc.

  • Annie Tucker

    Vivienne, I agree with using "are," but I understand the librarian's and others' thinking about "is." Editing software doesn't have all the answers (like spell-check), so it's always best to ask a real person! 

  • Thank you for this article. This reminds me of a question I asked recently. I wanted to know which was correct: Visiting hours are over or visiting hours is over. I got a variety of answers. Some said, "both." Others said "is" and a few said "are." Finally, I went online and asked a librarian at the New York Public Library Site and the answer is "are," which I had in the first place but my editing software kept saying "is." The librarian said she could understand why people would say "is" because you think of visiting hours as a single time slot.

  • Paula Lozar

    Well = adverb;  good = adjective.  "She dances well" -- not "good." 

  • Delaine Shay

    Using "well" or "good" always catches me in wondering what is the proper usage of each one. Would you enlighten me.

  • Paula Lozar

    Actually, neither sentence is correct -- the second does the right thing with pronouns, but both of them have a disconnection between the introductory clause and the rest of the sentence. I'd correct it to read, "As we walked past the yard, we saw that neither ... [etc.]"

  • Patricia Robertson

    Oh no, I failed the quiz. Time to go back to school! Thanks for the lesson.

  • Wow, Annie, I had no idea! Thanks for the education. Makes me want to study grammar again. What's your favorite book on the subject?