Making Verbs Agree with Neither, Either, and Each

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  • Nancy Tuten

    20 August 2018

    Making Verbs Agree with Neither, Either, and Each

    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. Every one of the flowers in our garden were killed during the recent hard freeze.

    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.

    Here we are focusing on making verbs agree with a few of those pronouns that are trickier than others. 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 to my party” and “Somebody WAS in our house while we were away.”

    But we are often tempted to use plural verbs when the pronouns each, neither, and either are used as subjects despite the fact that they are singular. Each of the verbs in example sentences above should have been singular to agree with their subject:

    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. Every ONE (of the flowers) (in our garden) WAS killed during the recent hard freeze.

    In all four of these sentences, the prepositional phrase following the subject (marked here with parentheses) creates confusion because the object of the preposition is plural—as is often the case in a sentence containing each, neither, or either as 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 never in any way affect the subject-verb relationship. What sentence 2 actually says is this: “Of the two principals on the list of candidates, neither one has asked to be considered. . . .”

    In sentence 4, the subject one, when modified by the adjective every, might at first seem to be plural because the sentence conveys the message that ALL the flowers were killed. However, the subject of the verb is the singular pronoun one, so that verb must be singular to agree with it.

    One final point: when two subjects are joined by the correlative conjunctions either . . . or or neither . . . nor, the verb agrees with the one closer to it. In such cases, either and neither are functioning as part of correlative conjunctions, not as 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

    Can you find subject-verb agreement issues 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 2018.