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I just read a sentence that ended with “... why a host might use two rather than one address.” and it seemed awkward to me. What rule governs a word's plurality, when it is used in this sort of shorthand to refer to both single and multiple things?

I would probably say:

this or that address
these or those addresses
one or two addresses
two or one addresses

That last one is awkward and I wouldn't normally use it, but the “rather than” construction forces that order.

So do you pluralize if the last item is multiple? If there are any multiple items in the list?

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    I'd eliminate the awkwardness by rewording it to "two [nouns] rather than one." – John Clifford Mar 29 '16 at 21:00
  • Yeah, I would too, and I don't know why the editor of this book didn't. But I'm curious whether there's a standard answer if you do it the awkward way. – Jacktose Mar 29 '16 at 21:03
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    @zeugma I'd use 'pluralise'. It doesn't sound awkward. (I wouldn't normally leave this unqualified, but as you do ...). – Edwin Ashworth Mar 29 '16 at 21:08
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    Purdue Owl has 'When a compound subject contains both a singular and a plural noun or pronoun joined by or or nor, the verb should agree with the part of the subject that is nearer the verb. The boy or his friends run every day. His friends or the boy runs every day.' / I'd always use the former here. And this has been covered before on ELU. The 'rule' probably extends to 'two rather than one address', but I'd always choose 'two addresses rather than one' as John offers. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 29 '16 at 21:16
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    @zeugma It sounds fine to me (now I'll qualify because you have done). There are almost 24 000 000 Google hits for the totally acceptable 'prioritize'. In addition, I thought that as an American, you had and allowed freedom of speech. Including words and spellings that aren't your personal favourites. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 29 '16 at 21:22
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When using the conjunctions "or" or "nor," the plurality depends upon the noun closest to the thing it modifies. In your examples:

this or that address (correct because "that" is typically singular); these or those addresses (correct because "those" is typically plural); one or two addresses (correct because "two" is plural); two or one addresses (incorrect because "one" is singular)

Your original question, however, is not like the examples. "... why a host might use two rather than one address" is a comparison between "two [addresses] rather than one address." In the author's sentence, "address" is the correct choice.

  • Good answer, thanks. I note that the author's choice would be correct by the proximity rule, too. – Jacktose Mar 29 '16 at 21:28
  • Goes without saying but this proximity notion also applies to verb number e.g. Neither the officers nor the shopkeeper lacks a credible defense. – Chase CB Mar 29 '16 at 21:33
  • The number of instances of "two rather than one address" on the internet, and those of "two rather than one dog / child / house / car" as compared with "two dogs / children / houses / cars rather than one", seem strongly to indicate that the "two rather than one address" etc versions are unidiomatic. Arguing from an possible deletion does not license a form; usage does. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 29 '16 at 22:53

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