Wednesday, April 17, 2013

GrammatiCats: Or and Nor

Y'know, I seriously considered slapping a couple of extra I's in the title so this could be a post about dwarves.

But no!  The GrammatiCats remain ever committed to their purpose, and will not yield to temptation.

Okay, they might occasionally yield to temptation.

Likewise, you might occasionally think to yourself, "man, I have a judo-grip on this grammar thing.  I am a super-literate sentence-making demigod, and nothing you say about or and nor could possibly be news to me."

Well, batten your hatches and buckle your swash, because today marks GrammatiCats' first-ever...

Pinkie Rating: 5


Dare you enter this cave of conjunctive wonders?

Of course you do!

Because when it comes to conjunctions, this ain't your first rodeo.  You already know how they join words and phrases (and sometimes whole sentences), and you're no stranger to subject-verb agreement either.

Here, for example, the subject is "Skibbles and Mitsy" - not one, but two selfish kitties - so naturally the verb should be "ARE hogging," not "IS hogging."

So what would we do with the verb if the subject had "or" instead of "and"?  Would it be

Skibbles or Mitsy needs to share the juice


Skibbles or Mitsy need to share the juice

"Well," you might say, "Neither of them is exactly Tolstoy, but the first one is probably right, even though the second one kinda sounds better."

And that is exactly it.  When we use "or," we're essentially saying that there is one slot, and one of two items could fill it.

In this case, if EITHER Skibbles or Mitsy shared, then Tattle-Cat would be happy.  He's whining because neither of them is filling this juice-sharing slot.

And speaking of neither!

This same one-slot idea is true when we use "nor."

See how this sentence uses the singular "was" instead of the plural "were"?   It works the same way:

Either one of these two items could potentially fill the slot - that's why the verb is singular.  (It just so happens that "neither" of them is up to the job, so Deedee is happily asleep.)

To summarize the story so far, then: singular subjects connected with "or" or "nor" take a singular verb.

Well, so what about non-singular subjects?

 Neither his owners nor the other cats were able to meet Mr. Mittens' emotional needs.

Yeah - this sentence uses the plural "were" instead of the singular "was."  The one-slot idea still applies here -

 - but since both items that could potentially fill the slot are plural, the plural verb is appropriate.  (Neither item would fit the singular verb: "His owners is" or "the other cats is" wouldn't make sense.)  Conclusion: plural subjects connected with "or" or "nor" take a plural verb.

Good?  Good.  Now let's earn that fifth pinkie.

What do you do if you have a mixed subject, where one item is singular and the other is plural?

In this case, no matter which one of the two items goes to fill the single slot, the verb will be wrong for the other one.  So why does this sentence use "were"?

When a singular and a plural subject are connected with "or" or "nor," the verb should agree with the subject closest to it.

Here, the subject closest to the verb is "patients," so the verb becomes "were" in order to agree with it.

(N.B.:  in this situation, some style guides dictate that the plural verb should go last.  Kind of like that one guy at the book-signing that wants all 35 of his Dragonlance novels autographed, and has to keep going to the back of the line.  However, don't follow this advice off a cliff.  If you're going to say "Neither the students nor I am happy about this extra silly rule," you might think it sounds even sillier to put the I first.  So don't feel obliged.)

Whew - this post should come with a diploma and a tattoo.  There is actually more to say about "or" and "nor," but we'll save it for another time.  Reel in those pinkies, people - someone might see you!

Further Reading:

Subject and Verb Agreement - particularly Rules 1 through 5

Many thanks to today's GrammatiCats!

1. Firefly, courtesy of Jarret O.
2. (clockwise from Tattle-Cat) Zucchini Muffin, Sam-I-Am, George, Gracie, and Limerick, courtesy of Mary Z.
3. Silkie, courtesy of Frank the Magnificent
4. Little Bit (in memoriam) - courtesy of Gary
5. Shelter kitties, courtesy of the great Dr. C!

(Does your kitty want to be a GrammatiCat?  Sign up here!)


  1. Great post. I didn't know about the last example. FYI, for some reason, I always feel super smart when using nor. Not sure why either. lol

    1. You should! Cuz it's very delicate and finicky in where you get to use it. It's like, the oyster fork of conjunctions. And knowing how to use one of those makes you classy as all get-out.

  2. This has to be one of the more entertaining grammar lessons I've ever experienced. Thanks!

    1. Thanks! That means even more coming from you, Cynthia - I've known my share of grizzled grammar veterans, but you are one of the grizzliest!

  3. I am with Patricia where I feel uber cool/smart using nor, but I always forget to use neither.

    That final pinky earning is brutal, and I could see that taking some practice to get down. It gets a bit confusing sometimes, because the wrong way sounds better.

    Some of these people have so many cats!