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I'm confused with this rule: 1. If one subject is singular and the other is plural, and the words are connected by the words "or," "nor," "neither/nor," "either/or," or "not only/but also," use the verb form of the subject that is nearest the verb.

And I came across this question: Not only the students but also the teacher (was, were) anxious to finish the lesson.

If the above rule is followed, the answer is WAS. However, if I use http://www.reverso.net/spell-checker/english-spelling-grammar/ to check, the answer is WERE.

Which is correct? Please enlighten me. Thank you.

  • If it is students and teacher that are the subject, then the subject is plural and the verb is plural. Knowing the psychological problem of juxtaposing a singular noun with a plural verb, one would choose a different way to express the sentence. Both the teacher and the students were anxious .... – Nigel J Dec 3 '19 at 13:23
  • It's not a grammar rule. It's a way to get out of a mess. And it's wrong. The real rule is: Don't connect subjects with or and expect to get away with it. In other words, "If one subject is singular and the other is plural, and the words are connected by or, Start Over." – John Lawler Dec 3 '19 at 16:14
  • @JohnLawler Hmm. So one should never start a sentence with "Not only the X, but also the Y ..."? – Araucaria - Not here any more. Dec 3 '19 at 21:33
  • Not if X and Y don't have the same number. – John Lawler Dec 4 '19 at 3:01
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In the particular sentence in the question, the subject unambiguously consists of multiple people.

It can be paraphrased this way:

They (all of them; not only the students but also the teacher) were anxious to finish the lesson.

It's simply the fact that it's stylistically awkward, and it might be a good idea to rephrase it:

Not only were the students anxious to finish the lesson, but so was the teacher.


Other specific constructions, which have a more ambiguous subject, would be more amenable to the "nearest to the verb" rule mentioned. But, at the same time, also better off rephrased.

If you are confused by the way something is phrased, and you are forced to pick something that a rule says is right in order to resolve the ambiguous situation, it's often better to simply fix the sentence so it's not confusing in the first place.

| improve this answer | |
  • You (and John Lawler) are exactly right. The difference between good editing and mindlessly enforcing arbitrary rules of usage. Is that good editing avoids breaking such rules without introducing the awkwardness or other undesirable effects that would result from strict enforcement. It's also why a rule of usage that forbids writers and editors from resorting to avoidance (as in the case of the new pronoun rule in Stack Exchange's CoC for moderators) is inimical to good writing. My simple guideline is, "If it sounds bad, it isn't good writing, whatever the rules say." – Sven Yargs Jan 2 at 17:56

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