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In the process of writing to two people I typed: "Are either of you free?" and was immediately called out by my grammar checker which suggested I should write: "Is either of you free?"

The second of these options feels intuitively wrong to me, as I am addressing two people so should be using the plural. However I feel this is tied up in the whole issue of whether a group should be referred to in the plural or singular sense, e.g.

Red Hot Chili Peppers is a band

Uses "is" to indicate that the band is a singular entity, whereas

Red Hot Chili Peppers are a band

Uses "are" to indicate that the band is made up of multiple people.

So, which is correct? "Is either of you free?" or "Are either of you free?"

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No, I don't think it's tied up with the number of Red Hot Chili Peppers. Grammar checkers on both sides of the pond probably mark "Are either of you free" as a mistake, even though in Britain RHCP are plural. –  ShreevatsaR Jan 7 '11 at 14:24
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@ShreevatsaR: Grammar checkers would also probably mark "Heart are a band" as a mistake on both sides of the poind, even though it would be correct in the UK, because grammar checkers are too naive to deal with this stuff. –  Kosmonaut Jan 7 '11 at 14:42
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@Kosmonaut: I agree, but note that I said nothing about what grammar checkers do with Red Hot Chili Peppers. :-) I was only saying that this question (about either/or) is unrelated to the other question about bands and the like. –  ShreevatsaR Jan 7 '11 at 15:02
    
@ShreevatsaR: I just wanted to point out that grammar checkers are limited, so it doesn't matter all that much what they do in difficult cases like these. Besides, I think these two things are related in that there is a semantic influence on number agreement in both cases. But if you just mean that the two phenomena don't pattern together, then I agree with that; I do one but never the other. –  Kosmonaut Jan 7 '11 at 15:43
    
@ShreevatsaR, @Kosmonaut: I think that perhaps the example I used was not the best. I still feel that the two phenomena are related, but possibly only because they both revolve around perceived ambiguities of plurality. I took hawbsl's advice in the end and sent the email the way it sounded correct to me, and chalked it up to a dialect thing. Thanks for your input! –  Andy F Jan 7 '11 at 16:03
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3 Answers

up vote 13 down vote accepted

Your grammar checker corrected you because "either" does technically function with a singular verb. If you think about your question slightly expanded it would be "is either one of you free?".

However, leaving technical correctness aside, I think conventional usage allows for your question in both forms, and I would ignore your grammar checker if I were you.

By the way this has nothing to do with whether a collective noun (as in your Red Hot Chili Peppers) functions as a singular a plural. That's a separate issue, which I am sure is addressed many times over on this site, e.g. this question

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This is one of those situations where a prescriptive grammar guide might have no qualms about telling you that you should always have singular verb agreement with either. But it really is not that simple in practice. The word either actually gets singular agreement sometimes and plural agreement other times.

In particular, I think you will find a tendency toward singular agreement when the word either is by itself or part of a phrase that is clearly singular, e.g.:

  • [Either] is fine.
  • Is [either one] okay?

But you will find a tendency toward plural agreement when you have it as part of a phrase where the other component is clearly plural.

  • [Either of them] are fine.
  • Are [either of your brothers] coming?

Even with these tendencies, you will find occasional exceptions (depending on the speaker) or gray areas, but this describes why both types of agreement exist.

In the case of you, the word you can be singular or plural, although if it is preceded by "either of" then it is necessarily going to be the plural you.


In my (US) English, I don't distinguish between "Chili Peppers are a band" and "Chili Peppers is a band" (I just go with whether the band name is singular or plural, and agree with it), but I do the either singular-plural alternation. That said, I think it is a similar type of phenomenon. Semantics is stepping in and influencing the verb agreement — it's not always a purely syntactical decision.

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You would never use "Is either of you free?"

If you break the sentence down, and ask the question as though you are asking each individual person, separately, you would still not ask "is you free," so therefore you certainly wouldn't ask "is either of you free" in this situation.

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By that logic, "Is one of you Eddie?" would be wrong, and "Are one of you Eddie?" would be correct. –  RegDwigнt Jan 18 '11 at 17:55
    
@RegDwight: That's cheating: "one of you" is quite different from "either of you". "Are either of you Eddie?" is grammatical (to me, at least!) - it seems that "either of you" is directly equivalent to "you or you", whereas "one of you" is not... so while it's not clear exactly what it is, there is a rule here somewhere :) –  psmears Jun 20 '11 at 15:24
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@psmears "either" implies "either one" –  hawbsl Nov 9 '11 at 18:22
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