Verbs with Alternative Subjects

By Michael Kandel

Should you use a singular or plural verb after alternative subjects—that is, two nouns joined by or—when one is singular and the other plural?

A common practice is to have the verb agree in number with the second subject of the pair—in other words, with the noun that is closer to the verb (e.g., “Making”; Soanes):

“Either the teacher or the students were wrong.”

“Either the students or the teacher was wrong.”

But Claire Kehrwald Cook argues that “evasion seems the best tactic” when grammar is at odds with logic (87–88).

She, and other venerable arbiters of style, among them Theodore M. Bernstein (304), advise that you sidestep this grammar-versus-logic problem by rewording.

Two ways to sidestep (there are others):

Use a verb for which number doesn’t apply:

“Either the teacher or the students erred.”

“Either the students or the teacher erred.”

Rearrange to preserve correct subject-verb agreement:

“Either the teacher is mistaken or the students are.”

“Either the students are mistaken or the teacher is.”

A big idea hiding beneath a fine point of usage: there is no definitive answer to this uncomfortable question of agreement, no one clear path to correctness. There are, instead, options built into the English language that allow writers to express themselves clearly, if not in one way then in another.

Works Cited

Bernstein, Theodore M. The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. Atheneum, 1985.

Cook, Claire Kehrwald. Line by Line: How to Improve Your Own Writing. Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

“Making Subjects and Verbs Agree.” OWL Purdue Online Writing Lab, 1 Apr. 2014,

Soanes, Catherine. “Understanding Subject Verb Agreement.” Oxford Dictionaries, 21 Nov. 2012,

Published 28 November 2017

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