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I was watching the film A Game of Shadows starring Robert Downey Junior and Jude law when this line came up, "...neither you nor I is in control..." (I can’t remember the exact words that ended the phrase; if anyone can supply them, it would be much appreciated.)

It immediately struck me as being odd. When I mentioned this to my boyfriend; an English native speaker, with a PhD in something sciency, he told me it was correct. When I asked why, he couldn't explain but put forward the following sentence as an example. "Neither of us is in control..." But I disagreed with the wording and said the sentence should be: "Neither one of us is in control..." The genderless third person, one, is singular and hence so too the verb that follows. And we say, "one is" NOT "one are".

I believe

  • "Neither you nor I are in control over ..."

sounds better but it makes more logical sense to say:

  • "Neither you nor I am in control..."

because the verb agrees with the subject pronoun I; however, I'm not sure if I have ever read or heard this solution. So, I tried inverting the subject and auxiliary verb order and the resulting phrase was:

  • "Neither you nor am I in control..."

which sounds very formal, pompous and odd. Am I imagining things?

The two subjects you and I are two separate individuals who are not joined together, I agree the verb should be in the singular; but why should we use "is"? We don't say, "you is" or "I is". Before anyone rushes off to claim my question is a duplicate of a previous Stackexchange one: "Neither Michael nor Albert is correct" or "Neither Michael nor Albert are correct"? I want to explain why the answer to that question fails to explain why my boyfriend and the film makers consider the sentence below correct:

Neither you nor I is in control...

As I see it, "Michael" and "Albert" are two separate individuals, it therefore stands to reason that the verb should be singular, and "is" agrees with the subject. If I rephrase the neither and nor construction I would get:

  • Michael is not correct but neither is Albert

    OR

  • Michael is not correct and Albert isn't either.

Which have the same meaning, (either being the negative equivalent of neither) the sentences are grammatical which leads me to conclude that the verb must be singular and hence

  • Neither Michael nor Albert is correct

However, when I rephrase the "neither you nor I" sentence following the same procedure I have to say this:

  • You are not in control but neither am I ("I am" just sounds weird)

    OR

  • You are not in control and I'm not either.

which leads me to surmise that the sentence below must be grammatically correct

  • Neither you nor I am in control"

So, why does my boyfriend insist that the sentence ought to be:

Neither you nor I is in control

Which one of us is right and why?!

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See discussion here, especially the comments: english.stackexchange.com/questions/10304/… –  bib Aug 17 '13 at 14:25
    
I don't quite follow your argument at the end of your second paragraph. Your BF says "Neither of us is ..." You think it should be "Neither one of us is ..." - So you are in agreement on the verb form. Hence I'm not clear what the next 2 sentences are referring to, when you still conclude that "is" is correct. I have a recollection of reading in another Q. that with joint subjects, each of which requires a different verb form, then the subject nearer the verb dictates the verb form. OTOH, that would require am in your orig.quote! Or is the subject simply "Neither", which takes "is"? –  TrevorD Aug 17 '13 at 14:41
    
I cannot really get into the grammatical details of your example, but I don't see anything wrong with it. I don't see anything wrong with the one you suggested either. –  Noah Aug 17 '13 at 14:42
3  
See this answer. It is hard to make is be "correct" without modification, but as @TrevorD points out, it is easy to do so with minor modification. The bottom line is that native speakers fumble around here, and that you will not get a unanimous answer from them. –  tchrist Aug 17 '13 at 14:49
1  
Please see also this question. There's lots more where that comes from. People keep asking it. Nothing is ever closed as a dup. As ELP sang, "Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends / We're so glad you could attend / Come inside! Come inside!". –  tchrist Aug 17 '13 at 18:01

1 Answer 1

up vote 6 down vote accepted

When subjects are connected with neither/nor, the one closest to the verb controls the agreement. Thus, neither you nor I am. Why? Because lots of English grammar books say so.

Sounds awkward? It does. Lots of other English grammar books agree and so does actual usage. As you can see, there's an actual controversy here. There are workarounds that would please adherents of both viewpoints. The easiest one is probably neither I nor you are, but most of your proposed variations would work.

Of course "*Neither you nor I is" is totally wrong, because is doesn't agree with anything in this phrase.

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1  
I pretty much agree, but the last sentence seems a bit extreme. Nothing is entirely satisfactory, but there are plenty of written instances of neither you nor I is. It's certainly no worse than Shakespeare's Thou and I am one –  FumbleFingers Aug 17 '13 at 17:46
1  
@FumbleFingers We have examples of disjunct "or thou art", too, as in One legion of wild thoughts, whose wandering wings / Now float above thy darkness, and now rest / Where that or thou art no unbidden guest, / In the still cave of the witch Poesy,. People keep asking about disjunctive subjects. I keep writing about it. Nothing is ever closed as a dupe, and they keep coming and coming and coming and coming and coming. –  tchrist Aug 17 '13 at 17:58
    
@FumbleFingers: Well, perhaps there's some kind of poetic license in force here. –  n.m. Aug 17 '13 at 18:05
    
@tchrist: I'd have probably closevoted as a dup myself when I read and upticked your first comment, except I realised you hadn't closevoted. Guessing that meant you saw some difference here, I thought I'd wait a while. –  FumbleFingers Aug 17 '13 at 18:07
    
@ n.m.: My guess is that since there simply isn't a "definitively correct" approach to this one, we're all indulging in a bit of poetic license here, however we try to phrase such constructions. –  FumbleFingers Aug 17 '13 at 18:09

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