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I'm sorry I couldn't be more specific in my question title. I don't have the vocabulary to pinpoint what exactly I have difficulties with yet; therefore, I'll try to explain through examples.

I came across this exercise on College Panda and was confused:

"Neither the employees nor the owner (cares/care) about the customer."

I thought the answer was "care" because "employees" and "owner" could be summarized with the pronoun 'they'.

And you would say, "They(plural) don't care about the customer".

But apparently, the answer is, "Neither the employees nor the owner cares about the customer." Does that mean, when using two nouns in tandem, you are supposed to base the subject/verb agreement on the noun directly preceding the verb?

E.g. with "My daughters and my son play/plays together", the verb "play" must agree with "son"; with "My son and daughters play/plays together", the verb "play" must agree with "daughters"?


Sorry about any confusion.

TL;DR: Please explain why the answer isn't "care"

Thanks in advance!

marked as duplicate by Edwin Ashworth, Drew, David, Skooba, tchrist Aug 12 '17 at 20:05

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

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@AdarshSharma is fundamentally correct, but I wanted to build on his answer.

When dealing with compound subjects you have an important rule:

"Or" separates, "and" combines

There is no case when "A and B" would not lead to the plural form of a verb. It always implies "at least two."

"Or," on the other hand, separates the subjects, meaning they're treated individually. Usually the phrase suggests only one of the two subjects will be important, but that's not always the case. Just because I tell you, "John or Luke will visit you," doesn't mean John and Luke can't show up.

The important point is that when using "or," you grammatically don't know which subject will be important. In this case, the plurality of the subject closest to the verb dictates which form the verb will take.

One last point

You may run across (or be tempted to use) complex compound sentences without the benefit of more words. Thus:

Jack and Jill or Dick and Jane care about you.

Can be evaluated as:

Jack and (Jill or Dick) and Jane care about you.

or:

(Jack and Jill) or (Dick and Jane) care about you.

In this particular example, all solutions are plural in nature and use the same verb form. But what happens when the subjects aren't evenly distributed across the conjunctions?

Jack and Jill or Jane cares about you.

Our two possiblities are:

Jack and (Jill or Jane) care about you.

(Jack and Jill) or Jane cares about you.

After a bit of research, it appears there are no rules governing the precedence of conjunctions, meaning we cannot grammatically resolve which verb to use. If you wrote this in a story, your editor would hand it back and ask you to reword the sentence — and rightly so.

However, in the technical world where rules are needed to resolve logical problems, the conjunction "and" takes precedence over the conjunction "or." This permits us to resolve the problem. As more and more of our educated youth grow up amidst an increasingly technical world, I expect they will become exposed to this idea (through experience, if not formally anywhere) because people like me with a technical background will simply default to using the conjunctions that way. I expect that, in the end, a rule of conjunctive precedence will be integrated into English grammar. It will be interesting to see (if I live long enough) whether my prophecy proves true.

Gratefully, you can linguistically create the parentheses I used above:

Jack and either Jill or Jane care about you.

The word "either" identifies the "Jill or Jane" group as more important than "and" by itself. This isn't the official way to use the "either...or" conjunction, but it works. Thank goodness!

Facinating... blooming fascinating.


Edit: My answer was modified because @EdwinAshworth brought up a valuable issue. After so many years working in technical industries, it never even crossed my mind that there might not be a priority of conjunctions. It's been decades since my last English class, but only hours since I last needed to use logical rules. Consequently, the use of conjunctive precedence simply makes sense — so much so that trying to impose another priority than that developed for logic literally sounds bad to my ear. And that started my search....

Son of a gun.

Therefore, Mr. Ashworth was correct that I was bold, indeed, to assert the "rule." The answer you see above has been adjusted to account for this.

My thanks, Mr. Ashworth, for pointing that out.

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    '... the "and" compounds are dealt with first, then the "or" compounds' is a bold statement. Are you not hoping that a rule used in logic transfers to English? I've only ever come across the need for disambiguation hereabouts. In any case, you need to add supporting evidence (of English language usage). – Edwin Ashworth Aug 11 '17 at 22:19
  • Your answer still has issues. With compound subjects joined by 'and', many people adopt notional agreement. Thus 'Bacon and eggs are both to be found on aisle 12' but 'Bacon and eggs is my favourite meal for breakfast'. 'Health and safety always has to be the most important consideration.' There are many posts addressing this here on ELU. // There are (potentially) conflicting 'rules' hereabouts: formal agreement, notional agreement, and proximity agreement (and perhaps the odd case where none seems to be used). 'More than one deer was killed' is a nasty shock for some people. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 12 '17 at 10:03
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In your first example, "Neither employees nor the owner ... ," the verb takes singular form because of the preceding noun. In this case: "cares".

In your second example, "daughters and son" becomes plural because of "and", which decides the form of verb as "play".

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