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According to this link, if at least one of the nouns involved is plural then it should take the plural form of the verb. Otherwise, it should take the singular form of the verb. But in the last part it says not all grammars agree to those rules thus proximity rule applies. However, it doesn't explain when to apply the proximity rule and when not to use the former rules.

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I think this is an interesting question; unhappily, I also think there's no good answer (which is at bottom what "not all grammars agree" means). I "solve" problems like this by avoiding them. –  StoneyB Oct 15 '12 at 16:50
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Please illustrate with examples. –  coleopterist Oct 15 '12 at 16:57

1 Answer 1

up vote 8 down vote accepted

The “proximity rule” you are referring to is that when you have a compound but disjunctive subject, the verb agrees in number with the closer — or in the case of three or more, the closest — of the subjects.
All these are correct, and :

  • Either my brother or my sister is going to get it.
  • Either my brothers or my sisters are going to get it.
  • Either my brother or my sisters are going to get it.
  • Either my brothers or my sister is going to get it.

  • Either I or my brother is going to get it.
  • Either my brother or I am going to get it.

  • Either my brother or you are going to get it.
  • Either you or my brother is going to get it.

  • Either my brother or thou art doomed.

But it is often better to rephrase:

  • Either my brother is going to get it, or my sisters are.
  • Either my brother is going to get it, or I am.
  • Either you are going to get it, or my brother is.
  • Either my brother is going to get it, or you are.
  • Either my brother is doomed, or thou art.

And then there was nor

This same rule applies (well, or can apply) to neither/nor sets as much as it does for either/or instances. So in all the examples just provided, you can change all instances of either into neither and of or into nor, and the verb remains unchanged. So:

  • Neither my brother nor my sister is going to get it.
  • Neither my brothers nor my sisters are going to get it.
  • Neither my brother nor my sisters are going to get it.
  • Neither my brothers nor my sister is going to get it.

All that being said, one can also find examples in writers of renown where neither is used with a plural verb despite both elements being singular themselves.

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How disjunctive the subjects should be to consider they are indeed disjunctive enough to consider using proximity rule? Is it not right to just always use proximity rule in all cases? –  supertonsky Oct 19 '12 at 16:14
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@supertonsky Yes, always use proximity with disjunction. –  tchrist Oct 22 '12 at 16:53
    
one last question, what exactly do you mean by disjunctive subjects? –  supertonsky Oct 23 '12 at 7:45
    
@supertonsky, disjunctive subjects means that there are more than one subject, and that they are separated by a conjunction that separates the subjects from each other, rather than putting them together in a group. In plain words, disjunctive subjects are separated by ‘or’, while conjunctive subjects are connected by ‘and’. With conjunctive subjects (“Both X and Y are going to do it”), the verb should always be plural because there is always more than one subject—the proximity rule cannot be used there. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 19 '13 at 5:42
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@JasonC I’m not quite sure what you are looking for, but I’ve gone and added examples with you for you. –  tchrist Aug 2 at 14:38

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