Friday, October 19, 2012

Is they is, or is they are?

by Scott Rhoades

A few days ago, one of my friends asked the following on Facebook:

How would you properly say, "If you or your child are (is)....?"

 The simple answer is that you go with the verb form that applies to the noun or pronoun nearest the verb. You are, but your child is, so you use is. But it's one of those things where, even if you know the rule, if you look at it long enough you might start to question it.


The or makes it singular. If you used and, the verb would be are, because you and your child become  a plural noun phrase. 

Let's try a similar sentence, in the spirit of the current season:

If your son or his parakeet is being eaten by ravenous leeches...

The answer verb is still is, but I'll bet this one made some of you wonder. Throw in an are and I'll bet at least a few of you will feel less sure about the correct verb, especially if you read it out loud.

On the other hand:

If your son or his parakeets are being dissolved by the globulous acid monster...

Order matters. If you put the kid first, you'd get: 

If your child or you are going to dig up the bodies in the back yard for dinner...

This next example is where it starts to feel tricky:

If your sons or their guppy is being gulped down by toothless witch babies...


It's easy to question the simple noun-closest-to-the-verb explanation here. It feels wrong, because one of the subjects is plural. As it turns out, it actually is wrong, at least according to some grammarians, although leniency is often granted in a case like this. Or maybe the way to look at it is both ways are right. Ish. As we all know, any rule has exceptions. According to many grammarians, the closest-noun rule does not apply if either of the subject nouns is plural. Whether I use is or are, it doesn't feel more right than if I use the other. This is a case where I would rewrite the sentence because even the right verb form has an incorrect feel to it. But that's not easy in this example. If I had written:

If your sons or the guppy is being gulped down by toothless witch babies...

I'd switch the nouns around, putting the plural closest to the verb, which makes it feel better:

If the guppy or your sons are being gulped down by toothless witch babies...

However, that ownership-showing their might be important in the sentence. In that case, you're either going to offend the a-plural-in-either-position-requires-are crowd or the closest-to-the-verb gang. I would look for a way to rewrite surrounding sentences that allows you to choose a less contentious construct.

Whenever you are faced with a problem like this, read it aloud. As a writer, you most likely have a good feel for the language and so you can usually rely on the feel of the sentence, on your instinct. If you're still not sure, look it up. However, if a problem feels that sticky, it usually means that rewriting should be considered. Even if you wrote it correctly, a sentence that requires a tricky grammar rule is likely to feel wrong or confusing to some readers, which will pull them out of your story, even if only for a second. You don't want to do that, so opt for a construct that flows naturally and is clear and easily understood without requiring the reader to think about grammar, and without creating a speed bump that interrupts the flow of the story.

3 comments:

Julie Daines said...

And this is exactly why I keep my Chicago Manual of Style at hand at all times. Grammar is tricky, and often what sounds right is incorrect.

Kasey @ Mormon Mommy Writers said...

I have a feeling that neither the guppies nor my son will care what you say as long as the toothless witch babies don’t get them.

Bruce Luck said...

Its one of those things that the more you look at it, the harder it is to figure out the correct way it should be. I agree. Just re-write it.