Three Tricky Singular Indefinite Pronouns: “Neither,” “Either,” and “Each”

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  • Nancy Tuten

    11 February 2020

    Three Tricky Singular Indefinite Pronouns: “Neither,” “Either,” and “Each”

    In a different post, we discuss using singular personal pronouns to refer to singular indefinite pronouns (e.g., anyone, everyone, someone) and pointed out ways to do so without reinforcing the gender binary. This article focuses on making verbs agree with the singular indefinite pronouns neither, either, and each.

    Some indefinite pronouns are easy to use. We know better than to say, for example, “Everyone are coming to my party” or “Somebody were in our house while we were away.” Native speakers usually know to say “Everyone is coming” and “Somebody was in our house.”

    That is, we recognize that everyone and somebody are singular, not plural.

    But we are often tempted to use plural verbs when the pronouns either, neither, and each are used as subjects, despite the fact that each of them is singular.

    Can you spot subject-verb problems in any of the following sentences?

    1. Each of the seventeen department heads are required to submit a year-end budget report.
    2. Neither of the two principals on the list of candidates have asked to be considered for the district superintendent’s position.
    3. Either of the desks are suitable for the president’s new office.
    4. Each of the plants in our flower beds were killed during the recent hard freeze.

    Each of the verbs in these sentences should have been singular to agree with its subject. (The prepositional phrases that separate each subject from its verb are enclosed in parentheses here.):

    1. Each (of the seventeen department heads) is required to submit a year-end budget report.
    2. Neither (of the two principals) (on the list) (of candidates) has asked to be considered for the district superintendent’s position.
    3. Either (of the desks) is suitable for the president’s new office.
    4. Each (of the plants) (in our flower beds) was killed during the recent hard freeze.

    Beware of Prepositional Phrases

    In all four of these sentences, the prepositional phrases following the subject create confusion because the objects of those prepositions are plural, as is often the case in a sentence when either, neither, or each is the subject.

    • Sentence 2, for instance, does not say “two principals have asked.” The plural noun principals is the object of the preposition of, and prepositional phrases rarely affect the subject-verb relationship. Sentence 2 actually says, “Of the two principals on the list of candidates, neither one has asked to be considered . . . .”
    • In sentence 4, the subject each might seem to be plural because the sentence conveys the message that all the plants were killed. However, the subject of the verb is the singular pronoun each, so that verb must be singular, too.

    One final point: when two subjects are joined by either . . . or or neither . . . nor (two of the correlative conjunctions), the verb agrees with the one closer to it. In such cases, either and neither are part of the conjunctions, though, and are not the subjects, as is the case in the sentences above:

    • Neither the teacher nor the students were looking forward to the end of summer.
    • Neither the students nor the teacher was looking forward to the end of summer.

    TEST YOURSELF

    Do the subjects and verbs agree in the following sentences?

    1. Neither of the star players were on the roster for the championship game because both of them were injured.
    2. Each of you have something unique to offer this organization.
    3. Either of the magnet school programs are suitable for children gifted in mathematics.
    4. Every one of the two hundred letters were signed personally by the executive director.

    ANSWERS

    1. NEITHER of the star players WAS on the roster for the championship game because both of them were injured. [Note that the second verb is plural (were) because the subject of that verb is the plural pronoun both.]
    2. EACH of you HAS something unique to offer this organization.
    3. EITHER of the magnet school programs IS suitable for children gifted in mathematics.
    4. Every ONE of the two hundred letters WAS signed personally by the executive director.

    Copyright 2002 Get It Write. Revised 2020.