August 7, 2008
Weekly Language Usage Tips: neither-singular or plural?, historic vs. historical
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.
- “Neither” is singular.
- “Neither” traditionally refers to two things but can be used with three or more.
- As a conjunction, “neither” should be used with “nor,” never “or.”
- 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!
Dictionary.com 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.”