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March 26th, 2008

Neither is or are? / more on Oriental

by Barbara Wallraff


Douglas J. Knapp, of Kingston, Ontario, writes: “We have an argument going as to whether ‘Neither A nor B’ is singular or plural. Do we follow it with ‘is’ or ‘are’?”


Dear Douglas: That depends on whether A and B, or at least B, is singular or plural. Consider the U.S. “postal creed” (which is actually just an inscription on a post office building in New York City): “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” Note that singular verb “stays.” It sounds right, doesn’t it? And it is right, because the things that don’t stay the couriers are all singular.
If the inscription read, “Neither snowstorms nor rainstorms,” the right verb to follow those plural nouns would be plural: “stay.” But what if it read, “Neither snowstorms nor rain,” with one plural subject and one singular? Here the consensus among authorities starts to fall apart. Since you asked me, though, I suggest you look for a way to make the number of the two subjects match. It’s easy to do in our example -- you have your choice of “neither snow nor rain is” or “neither snowstorms nor rainstorms are.”

Sometimes the situation is trickier -- as in the first sentence of my answer to your question, where “A and B, or at least B” is the subject of the verb “is.” (Subjects with “or” are almost the same grammatically as ones with “neither ... nor.”) There’s no way, short of weird circumlocution, to make “A and B” singular; and there’s no way at all to make “B” plural. So, because the subject closer to the verb is singular, use a singular verb. “That depends on whether A and B, or at least B, is singular or plural” sounded right, too, didn’t it?





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Roger Wayne, of Grosse Pointe Park, Mich., writes: “Re a recent column of yours: I have asked a few ‘Asian’ acquaintances if they would be offended if I called them or referred to them as ‘Orientals.’ All said they were fine with either word. One even laughed, saying that perhaps some American in some HR department made up the whole thing.”


Dear Roger: I knew somebody was going to say that! And you’re not the only one who did. I’m glad that not all Asians are so touchy about how they’re referred to. But still. I used to be perfectly happy to be included in “he” when it referred to nobody in particular --as in, “A newspaper columnist usually has had experiences he would like to share with everyone.” Even as “he or she” and “s/he” and so on made their way into the mainstream, I continued to be comfortable with “he.” But 20-some years ago, I began to notice that this pronoun upset other women -- including many smart and sensible ones. At that point, it became irrelevant whether it offended my sensibilities. The point was that speakers and writers who wanted to make sure women felt included didn’t call a generic person “he” anymore.

Though your Asian friends may not mind being called “Oriental,” I think it would be cavalier on your part to continue to call them that. As far as I know, nobody Asian objects to being called “Asian.”




© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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