August 7, 2008

Weekly Language Usage Tips: neither-singular or plural?, historic vs. historical

Posted in historic/historical, neither-singular or plural? at 5:48 pm by dlseltzer

Alan M, sharp-eyed as ever, noted the following in a feedback included in the last issue of WLUT:

A reader writes:
The reader should have written:

I am compelled to respond with gratitude to your confirming that neither of us (at least on the basis of this evidence) have lost their his or her marbles

[Neither is singular; and I suppose I’m a pedant.]

I hadn’t noticed that at all (not about Alan being a pedant, the use of the plural with “neither”), so it inspired this week’s first tip:

Tip 1: Neither: singular or plural?

Following Alan’s grammar rule that “neither” is singular (which is correct, of course, with exceptions, of course) the above statement actually should have been:

I am compelled to respond with gratitude to your confirming that neither of us (at least on the basis of this evidence) havehas lost their his or her marbles

This made me crazy (of course) because I couldn’t decide which was correct, “neither of us have” or “neither of us has.” Thus, started my quest for understanding how “neither” should be used.

Let me quickly run through the rules, so we can discuss this.

  1. “Neither” is singular.
  2. “Neither” traditionally refers to two things but can be used with three or more.
  3. As a conjunction, “neither” should be used with “nor,” never “or.”
  4. When used with “nor” or, “of” the verb that follows should match the noun immediately preceding it. Thus,

Neither the boys nor the girls have the answer we are looking for. (Remember, it is okay to end a sentence with a preposition.)

Neither Mona nor Lisa knows the secret behind her smile.

Neither of the roommates believe the rumors floating around.

Neither the president nor the senators have a solution to the mess in Iraq.

Neither the birds nor a bee has too much on its mind.

which brings us back to the problem with “neither of us.”

“Neither” is the subject of the sentence. “Us” is the object of the prepositional phrase “of us.” Verbs match subjects not objects, so the correct wording would be “neither of us has.” HOWEVER, if we look at rule 4, above, we see that you don’t match the “subject,” but the nearest “noun,” in which case, the correct wording would be “neither of us have.”

Still uncomfortable with the answers, I googled the two phrases, and both appear to be in common use, with the plural verb seemingly slightly more frequently used.

My usual authorities (except for Bill Bryson) were strangely silent on the issue–the cowards! had this to say:

“When neither is followed by a prepositional phrase with a plural object, there has been, ever since the 17th century, a tendency, especially in speech and less formal writing, to use a plural verb and personal pronoun…”

Neither the butler nor the maids admit to their murders.

Well, gee, if it’s been in common use since the 17th century, I think it’s about time that we say it’s okay for formal writing, too.

The bottom line is that when the noun closest to the verb is plural, both the plural and the singular are okay to use. Trust your ear.

Tip 2: Historic or historical?

I was at home earlier in the week, waiting for the repairman to arrive to fix my washing machine. The Today show was playing live from the Great Wall of China, and the commentator noted, “This is a very historical moment.” Ouch.

“Historical” means pertaining to history.

I love historical novels, especially those that take place during the Civil War.

“Historic” means having importance in history.

I hope that November 4, 2008 will be a historic day for our country.

Please note that “a historic” is correct. “An historic” is not. You would only use “an historic” if you did not pronounce the h in historic. You use the article “an” when the word following begins with a vowel or a letter that is pronounced like a vowel. “An honest opinion” would be correct since we don’t pronounce the h in honest. We pronounce the h in historic so we would use “a” not “an.”

And finally, something can be “very historic,” NOTHING can be “very historical.”



  1. dlseltzer said,

    Alan writes:

    I wish I had never said a word about this!!

  2. dlseltzer said,

    scott writes:

    Just wondering why we would consider the object of a preposition to determine whether a verb is singular or plural when the preposition follows “neither” but not when it follows other subjects (Wouldn’t “The color of the walls GIVE me a headache” be incorrect?) Just convention?


    I think it is just convention (the way we use “neither”) .

  3. dlseltzer said,

    jessica writes:

    Regarding “a” and “an”… why do we say “a University” instead of “an University” (beside the obvious that it sounds wrong)?


    It’s because it is pronounced with a hard U (more consonant than vowel sounding).

    Think “a union,” then “an understanding person.”

    • Anonymous said,

      because the first sound u hear in that word is “y” “yuniversity”; hence, “a’ is more appropriate since y is a consonanant. hope this helps 😉

  4. dlseltzer said,

    from an anonymous reader-

    your comments about a historical vs. an historical made me wonder again- why do the Brits say someone is “in hospital” instead of “in the hospital”
    Great column as usual-


    I received a few answers to the question.

    Some serious:

    The explanation I’ve always given myself is that it’s parallel to how we talk about students: We say that “he is in school”. But of course that’s not fully satisfactory, because both we and Brits say “he is in the army” not “he is in army” and there myriad other examples where the article is included. I would wager there is no logical explanation.

    Most not so serious:

    Another possible explanation is that they’re a tad wacky.

    Brits are lazy. Otherwise theyd have won the Revolutionary War.

    Probably for the same reason that Pittsburghers state that those patients “needs fixed”.

    And then I got the answer I was waiting for from our friend from the UK, Derek Angus:

    i didn’t know Americans said ‘in the hospital’. I’d always say ‘in hospital’, just as I’d say ‘in bed’, ‘on holiday’ or ‘at work’. I think we reserve the ‘the’ to mean a specific ‘definite’ location, rather than here, where the idea is to describe a generic ‘state’. There is no doubt a more technical description, but that’s my instinctual response.

  5. dlseltzer said,

    Bryna writes:

    Yins (whatever spelling) is a second person plural form like y’all in
    the South but has a very proper lineage – it’s based on the German “you
    ones” and reflects the Penn Dutch settlers linguistic traditions. I am
    much less sure, but I think that dropping “to be” (which does add the
    correct tense for the rest of the country and clarifies the difference
    between needs to fix and needs to be fixed) is also related to the
    Germanic form and if the Brits do it to, I think then it’s more likely
    related to the German ancestry of English rather than efficiency of
    language (German is certainly not known for its linguistic efficiency).

  6. dlseltzer said,

    Derek writes:

    Brits, including announcers on the BBC news, also say ‘needs fixed’.
    I always felt Pittsburghers got a raw deal from other Americans for
    that one. British English rests on the principle that ‘more is less’.
    Why add ‘to be’ to ‘needs fixed’? What additional clarity is brought?
    Can’t say we say ‘yins’, however.

  7. Sharon J said,

    I just love these kind of message boards. I love language and all its oddities. I am also very good at creating new words. Mostly unintentially! (See)

    Having lived in Wales (UK) for 15 years, one of my favourite Welsh expressions was when someone spoke of being ‘under the doctor’ – ie, seeing the doctor on a regular basis for some problem or other (now isn’t that just so much longer!).

    Besides which, as we Brits created the language (dare I mention Geoffrey Chaucer), who says we can’t (ahem) adjust it now and again!

    ps To all those in doubt, my tongue is firmly in my cheek on this one!

  8. Mark P said,

    On the question of singular or plural with ‘neither of us’, I would say that there is a natural explanation for why ‘us’ can also invoke common use of plural verbs. To use it as a singular infers a closeness and wholeness of the individuals concerned, and this clearly oversteps a kind of social barrier about familiarity. If you want to emphasise the unity of ‘us’, then singular satisfies and if you want to emphasise the independence of those included by ‘us’, then plural works better. This carries over to nouns like ‘team’.

    The team have decided to work together more in the future.

    The team has decided to work together more in the future.

    Notice how the ‘together’ pulls our interpretation more towards the sense of the team as a group of individuals, and so the second option might not seem so easy on the ear, even if the rule (American English) is that ‘team’ is treated like a singular noun. In British English, it is often treated like a plural, especially in spoken language, though I have come across a number of style guides that follow the American English rule. I think that the polarisation in prescriptive grammars does not reflect the actual everyday usage.

    Personally, I think grammars should be much more cognizant of everyday usage and variation.

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