Is Either Singular or Plural?
The Quick AnswerTreat either and neither as singular. For example:
- Either is acceptable.
- Neither of the boys is trying.
- Shortbread or cake is on offer. (Shortbread and cake are singular.)
- Chocolates or cake are on offer. (Chocolates is plural.)
- Chocolates or cake is on offer. (Using the Proximity Rule, the verb becomes singular because cake, which is the nearest thing, is singular.)
Either and Neither Are SingularEither and neither are singular concepts. (They contrast with the word both.)
The word either can be a pronoun or an adjective (more specifically, a determiner, which is a kind of adjective). Either means one or the other of two things. Either is a singular concept.
The word neither can also be a determiner or a pronoun. It means not one nor the other of two things, i.e., not either. Neither is also a singular concept. For example:
- Either car is available. (Here, either is a determiner, i.e., an adjective. The term either car is singular.)
- Either is available. (Here, either is a pronoun. It has taken a singular verb.)
- Neither man is suitable. (Here, neither is a determiner.)
- Neither of the men is suitable. (Here, neither is a pronoun.)
Singular Verb with Singular ElementsIf the pairings either/or (often the either is omitted) or neither/nor form part of the subject of a verb and both elements are singular, then the verb must be singular too. For example:
- Neither Mark nor Dawn is at the function. (As Mark is singular and Dawn is singular, then is is correct. Using are would be wrong.)
- Neither Dickens nor Thackeray was a panderer to the public taste. (As Dickens is singular and Thackeray is singular, was is correct; i.e., were panderers would be wrong.)
- Either the clerk or the secretary has the keys to the Land Rover. (As clerk is singular and secretary is singular, has is correct; i.e., have would be wrong.)
- Either a mouse or a rat eats the cable at night.
- Neither Simon nor Gary do as they are told. (As Simon is singular and Gary is singular, do is wrong. It should be does. NB: Sometimes, you have to look further down the sentence too. This should be does as he is told.
Plural Verb with a Plural ElementIf the pairings either/or (often the either is omitted) or neither/nor form part of the subject and at least one of the elements is plural, then the verb must be plural too. For example:
- Neither the lawyer nor the detectives are able to follow the sequence of events. (Here, lawyer is singular, but detectives is plural. Therefore, are is correct.)
- There were neither cakes nor ice-cream at the party.
- Neither the firemen nor the policemen know him. (Here, knows, which is singular, would be wrong.)
- Either the budgies or the cat has to go. (This should be have because budgies is plural.)
Proximity RuleNot all grammar conventions follow the ruling above. Under a ruling known as the Proximity Rule, the verb is governed by the element nearest to it. For example:
- Either crumpets or cake is sufficient. (Under standard convention, this should read are sufficient because crumpets is plural. However, under the Proximity Rule, cake governs is because it is the nearest element.)
- There was neither ice-cream nor chocolates at the party. (Under standard convention, this should read were because chocolates is plural. However, under the Proximity Rule, ice-cream governs was because it is the nearest element.)
Correlative Conjunctions and the ElementsThe pairings either/or and neither/nor are known as correlative conjunctions. The words that follow either, or, neither, and nor are known as the elements.
- Neither Mark nor Dawn is at the function. (Here, the elements are in bold.)
- Either tea and crumpets or cake are sufficient. (Here, the elements are in bold.)
Be Brave with the RulingSometimes, it may sound wrong to use the singular form of the verb. Be confident. If both elements are singular, use the singular form. For example:
- Neither Jeremy nor Sarah was in the shop at the time of the theft. (Here, was is correct. Using were would be wrong.)