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My brother had this pair of questions on a Year 7 English exam.

Consider this sentence:

"Either Michael or Susan will have to do night shift tonight."

  1. Which is the subject?

    (a) Michael and Susan
    (b) Michael or Susan, not both

  2. Is the subject plural or singular?

He answered (a) and plural and was marked as wrong on both counts. The class has not yet had the reason explained to them.

Which What are the correct answers, and why?

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closed as off topic by Kris, Kristina Lopez, tchrist, MετάEd, cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Jun 20 '13 at 22:40

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Naturally the sentence would have been improved as "Either (a) or (b) is the subject of this sentence" or "Neither (a) nor (b) is the subject of this sentence", with options (a) and (b) altered to suit. But I haven't suggested that to the English teacher. –  Chris Morgan Jun 19 '13 at 9:16
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Oh my. 1. The subject is (c) "Either Michael or Susan" and 2. it can be both singular and plural, but in this particular situation it does not matter one bit because the verb form (will) is identical for both cases. In short: dumb tests are dumb and teach you dumb things. –  RegDwigнt Jun 19 '13 at 9:18
    
Yes - there is a confusion here between the concepts of subject (the string "Either Michael or Susan") of a / this particular sentence, and the agents (the people etc named in the subject). See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compound_subject . –  Edwin Ashworth Jun 19 '13 at 10:19
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@RegDwighт I suspect the question was deliberately chosen to use a verb that would fit either singular or plural. Had the sentence used a verb with different singular & plural forms, the verb form would have given away the correct answer. –  TrevorD Jun 19 '13 at 10:40
    
@TrevorD and I suspect you are being too generous. It would have been trivially easy to replace the verb with a choice of two forms, or with a blank. In fact that's what tests quite typically do. More to the point, then the example would actually teach you something. As it stands, it only teaches you to ask "who cares?" –  RegDwigнt Jun 19 '13 at 10:46
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2 Answers 2

up vote 3 down vote accepted

The subject of the sentence is not the person Michael, nor is it the person Susan, nor is it even the combination of these two people. The subject of the sentence is a grammatical constituent and it consists of words. In this case, those words are "Either Michael or Susan".

Of course, we know that these words have meaning, but if you replace them with some other words that mean the same thing (like "Michael or Susan, not both"), you're no longer identifying the subject of this particular sentence. Instead, you're now talking about what the subject means.


This subject is grammatically singular. In general, "either A or B" is singular when both A and B are singular, and that's the case here. But as RegDwighт points out in his comment, it doesn't make any difference in this particular sentence. So, to test whether it's singular or plural, let's replace the predicate with something that lets us more easily tell the difference:

  • Either Michael or Susan has a dollar.
  • *Either Michael or Susan have a dollar.

Since have doesn't work, we can be reasonably certain that the subject is singular.

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How many people are [doing] night shift tonight? One person is [doing] night shift tonight.

Michael or Susan will be doing the night shift - not both of them. So the subject is singular.

To address the comment from @RegDwighт, one could rephrase the sentence as Either Michael or Susan has to do night shift tonight.. There the use of has rather than have indicates that the subject is singular.

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I think the exam question is rather misleading, though; I would've answered a) because you would write both in the subjective form, ie. "Either he or she will have to..." –  Jez Jun 19 '13 at 10:40
    
@Jez I don't understand your comment. The example sentence in the question was "Either [he] or [she] will have to...". As I said in my comment to RegDwighт, I suspect the sentence was deliberately chosen so that the verb form did not give the answer away. –  TrevorD Jun 19 '13 at 10:51
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