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The following sentence refers to an apocalyptic story where money no longer has any value:

A can of sardines, radio batteries, or a bicycle is/are more precious than money.

Should I use is or are after the series?

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There's no rule that satisfies everybody. This is a lacuna in the grammar; best to simply avoid disjoined subject NPs in the present tense. –  John Lawler Aug 16 '13 at 15:38

3 Answers 3

As explained in this answer, the accepted rule is that the verb agrees in number with whichever disjoint subject lies closest to it. For example, from the Purdue Online Writing Lab:

When a compound subject contains both a singular and a plural noun or pronoun joined by or or nor, the verb should agree with the part of the subject that is nearer the verb.

So in your case, following that rule would have you writing it this way:

A can of sardines, radio batteries, or a bicycle is more precious than money.

That actually sounds right to my ear. Sure, you may not be able to satisfy all the people all the time, but then again, who ever can? :)

It becomes more obvious which choice sounds best if phrased as a question with a slight change:

Which one of these three choices is more precious than money: a can of sardines, some radio batteries, or a bicycle?

It becomes especially difficult to find something to suit all tastes when the closest subject is I and the verb is be. For example, with modified examples from this question:

  1. Neither you nor I am to blame.
  2. Neither you nor I are to blame.
  3. Neither you nor I is to blame.
  4. Neither one of you or me is to blame.

Choosing 2 there is common enough, but a copyeditor will "fix" it for you in a trice. The formal rule would have you elect choice 1 above, but it can make some people uncomfortable who are unfamiliar or simply disagree with the formal rule. You may not think 3 would be something people would ever choose, but a slight modification leading to 4 is easily enough done.

There's a lesson in that. If something makes people uncomfortable to say, hear, or read, it may be worth taking the trouble to reword it to avoid discomforting them.

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It's the mixture of singulars and plurals that's making the construction awkward. How about this instead?

Cans of sardines, radio batteries, and bicycles are more precious than money.

Even this leaves potential for confusion (it's not clear if "cans" applies to sardines only or to radio batteries and even bicycles), so this would be clearer again:

Radio batteries, cans of sardines, and bicylces are more precious than money.

The serial comma is a matter of taste :-)

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I'd have to agree with the commenter above (@JohnLawler); there's no rule that will satisfy everyone. On the other hand you could rewrite your sentence slightly to make your point. In the example below I've changed 'radio batteries' to a singular item as it fits the series better (and avoids faulty parallelism). I've also inserted a phrase:

A can of sardines, a radio battery, a bicycle; any one of these is more precious than money.


NOTE: Some of the comments below refer to an earlier version of this answer. They might still prove instructive in answering the original question so I've opted not to remove them for now.

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At least in BrE, either is restricted to choices of only two items. See Chambers –  TrevorD Aug 16 '13 at 15:57
    
I am British and do try to speak and write in BrE when I can ;-) I wasn't aware of this restriction on 'either' though. A quick search reveals that many pages maintain it is for a choice of two, which leaves me feeling a bit red-faced. However, I can't find a term that covers more than two options in a situation of logical disjunction. Surely, if it's possible to say 'either (a) or (b) or both' it is then possible to say 'either (a),[ or] (b), or (c)' and even 'either (a),[ or] (b)[ or], (c), or all three'... Or have I gone too far? –  guypursey Aug 16 '13 at 16:03
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I don't think you're unusual in using if for more than 2! ODO has "used before the first of two (or occasionally more) given alternatives". Personally, I don't like "either (a) or (b) or both", but I do admit to being pedantic! In your first ex. I would have just say "any of those ...". [I put "in BrE" because (if I recall correctly) in a previous question someone indicated that "either" is commonly used for >2 in AmE.] –  TrevorD Aug 16 '13 at 16:13
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@JanusBahsJacquet Quoting Shakespeare merely deomonstrates how and what words were used in his time. Many words used by Shakespeare are no longer in (common) use and/or have different (nuances of) meaning. A modern dictionary is more reliable as an indicator of current usage. –  TrevorD Aug 17 '13 at 11:10
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@TrevorD Happy to leave the discussion in for reference. Though I should probably include a note in the answer itself to explain that the comments refer to an earlier version of the answer. –  guypursey Aug 18 '13 at 11:50

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