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Please consider this sentence.

  1. "Not for as long as I or Patricia Smith live will you be allowed to forget that."

In this sentence, I've chosen to write live as I believe it is more correct as it agrees with the speaker, I. But try this.

  1. "Not for as long as I or Patricia Smith lives will you be allowed to forget that."

Now lives agrees with Patricia Smith and sounds much more natural as it agrees with the subject immediately in front of it.

The sentence is to be used in dialogue and cannot be rearranged as it is precisely what the speaker wants to say. Can anyone throw any light on which would be considered the correct grammar, or whether you agree that the second option is wrong, but sounds right so run with it.

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I can't see any perfect solution to this, but it isn't required in any case, since this is dialogue. The question for the novelist is not whether the line is correct, but whether it accurately reflects either the particular speech habits of the speaker, or else common speech habits. I would favour the first version, I or Patricia Smith live, mainly because, although it isn't the same as I and Patricia Smith (which would make live correct), it does leave a lingering impression of plurality which is likely to allow the reader to take live without blinking. And that for me would be the only consideration: which version is less likely to cause the reader to do a double-take?

  • I really like this answer, and I really like the answer below, and they're not the same. I find it interesting that you naturally hear live, as I hear lives. Again this might have to be decided according to the character as there may be cultural differences that determine this. – RoDaSm Mar 27 '14 at 15:04
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    @RoDaSm: If you think there's any problem that can't be resolved by either solution, it would be best to re-write the line in a way that avoids it altogether. It could be something like, "Patricia Smith and I know the truth. Not for as long as either of us lives will you be allowed to forget that." But of course, it depends on what "that" refers to. – Terpsichore Mar 27 '14 at 16:34
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This article contains:

2) Coordination with "or"/"either...or", "nor"/"neither...nor", "not only...but also". (P46) Here the problem of concord is generally dealt with according to the principle of proximity ...

So modelling on

"Not for as long as Patricia Smith lives will you be allowed to forget that."

we have

"Not for as long as I or Patricia Smith lives will you be allowed to forget that."

or modelling on

"Not for as long as I live will you be allowed to forget that."

we have

"Not for as long as Patricia Smith or I live will you be allowed to forget that."

[perhaps favoured, promoting the other person before the first]

  • I'm happy with the correct usage answer that does agree with what I hear though could not logically justify. The above answer was quite useful too as dialogue is not separate from character. Though my vote is with this answer. – RoDaSm Mar 27 '14 at 15:07
  • You may want to check other posts and websites for other examples of agreement. There are three underlying rules: 'grammatical' (the man was there; I am cold); 'proximity rule' (either my father or I am going to go); notional/logical concord (England were thrashed by the Aussies). They sometimes conflict. And 'You or John is the right man for the job' sounds awful, though it 'obeys the rule'. I think I'd go with 'You or John are the right man for the job' and invent the 'ungrammatical rule'. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 27 '14 at 15:32

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