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I wanted to know if it is grammatically correct to say:

Either the teacher or the students WAS enjoying the picnic.

I'm talking about a grammatical principle and not a proximity or attraction one.

Thank you so much..

  • This is one of those cases (subject is singular and plural NPs disjoined with or) where English doesn't have a rule. It's so rare that it doesn't happen often enough to derive a general principle, so it's one of those things where everybody hasta make up their own grammar patch. One of the simplest and most common is to always agree with the closest NP in this case, so that would make it were, since students is closer. This isn't more grammatical, mind -- it's merely less ungrammatical. The only real solution is to avoid the construction. Which is ambiguous anyway, with inclusive or. – John Lawler Feb 23 '15 at 17:09
  • I'm a spanish native speaker and studying to be an ESL teacher so we need to know all this 'rules' even if it's not common to hear some of them anymore. Thank you so much for the explanation! – Sol Torres Cossani Feb 23 '15 at 17:17
  • Jerry Morgan had a paper about this in a CLS volume in the 70s, I think. – John Lawler Feb 23 '15 at 17:18
  • But which 'rule' are you going to teach? The 'make up your own grammar patch' or the 'proximity principle'? In different but related cases, we've argued here over whether variant A or variant B should not be used, and ended up with people still disagreeing. 'English' and 'grammatical rules' being always usable in the same sentence is rather a misconception. Yet people seem to have a strange faith in there always being a right and wrong. The trouble is, they often mark other people wrong when their preferences are no less valid. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 23 '15 at 17:44
  • @EdwinAshworth As a North American native English speaker, I was educated entirely by prescriptivists in the American Public School System (although they never referred to themselves as such.) I did not learn about the notions of prescriptivism and descriptivism until I chanced upon a discussion in ELU a couple years back. – Lumberjack Feb 23 '15 at 18:01
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This is one of those situations where there is only a less bad solution. The less bad solution here, in my opinion, is to follow the proximity principle and write:

Either the teacher or the students were enjoying the picnic.

In your position, however, I would advise your students to avoid the construction altogether. There is a good section on this and similar problems of agreement in The Right Word At The Right Time (p31):

  • ?Either the birds or the postman wake me in the morning.

  • ?Neither you nor she ever wake before 11.

In both examples here, wakes would be preferable. When there is a compound subject like this, the verb takes its form from the noun that is nearer to it. Had the elements in each subject been reversed, then wake would have been correct.

Many people feel that this is still not a satisfactory solution. The impasse remains. The best course then is this: since it is the structure of the sentence that causes the impasse, simply change the structure of the sentence:

  • Either the birds wake me or the postman does.

Keep trying new constructions until you are happy with the wording. English is a remarkably versatile language. One version after another might be unsatisfactory, but persistence will turn up a suitable construction in the end.

The obvious restructuring in this case results in:

Either the teacher was enjoying the picnic or the students were.

  • Thank you! I do agree with you, these constructions are not really used anymore but I have no other choice, I'm being tested on this so I don't wanna disagree with what the teacher taught us. Also, the book we study from is "A student's grammar of the English language" by Sidney Greenbaum and Randolph Quirk. A book that I consider to be not that good. – Sol Torres Cossani Feb 24 '15 at 16:01
  • @Sol. I agree that your priority is to comply with your teacher's expectations so that you can pass the test. When you have your own students, you can teach them how English works in reality. – Shoe Feb 27 '15 at 11:15
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    I don't know Quirk's Students Grammar, but in his Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language he states: "A dilemma arises when one member [of a coordinated phrase such as in your example] is singular and the other is plural. ... Since the dilemma is not clearly resolvable by the principles of grammatical concord or notional concord, recourse is generally had to the principle of proximity: whichever phrase comes last determines the number of the verb." – Shoe Feb 27 '15 at 11:15

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