Agreement with disjunctive subjects

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A reader writes to ask about disjunctive subjects in English and how subject-verb agreement works in cases like the following:

Neither Barbara nor I ?am ?is ?are able to …
If you or I ?am ?are there, …

As it happens, I posted on the subject to ADS-L some years. I intended to post a version on Language Log, but I seem not to have gotten around to it. Until now.

When an addition to my (large and still growing) collection of english usage manuals, handbooks, and dictionaries — Fowler [H. Ramsey, not H.W.] & [Jane E.] Aaron, The Little, Brown Handbook (8th ed., 2001) — arrived in the mail, and I unwrapped it, it fell open to p. 337, where the following rule for subject-verb agreement (the fourth of eleven such rules, some with several subparts) is enunciated:

 (0) When parts of a subject are joined by or or nor, the verb agrees with the nearer part.

 There are three clauses:

 (1) When all parts of a subject joined by or or nor are singular, the verb is singular; when all parts are plural, the verb is plural

(2) When one part of the subject is singular and the other plural, avoid awkwardness by placing the plural part closer to the verb so that the verb is plural

(3) When the subject consists of nouns and pronouns of different person requiring different verb forms, the verb agrees with the nearer part of the subject.  Reword if this construction is awkward

Six comments.

(a) The handbook doesn't actually say what the problem is, and the way the solutions are presented conceals it. The fact is that clause (1) (slightly amended, to get the person issue out of the way) is utterly uncontroversial; I'm not aware of variation on this point, and I doubt that anyone needs to be told what to do when confronted by disjunctive subjects of the same number (and person). Clauses (2) and (3), however, treat circumstances where there is actual variation, and where writers are often genuinely puzzled; here's where the problem lies, in disjunctive subjects that differ in number or person (with verbs that show these differences morphologically).

(In general, i think it's a mistake for manuals to treat uncontroversial facts and disputed usage as covered by "rules" of the same sort.)

Now, extrapolating from the clear cases in (1), we can frame a general principle:

Disjunctive Agreement (DA): with a disjunctive subject, the verb agrees with each of the disjuncts.

DA covers the cases in (1) and also (correctly) predicts that the cases in (2) and (3) are problematic — because they give rise to conflicts as to which verb form to choose, as in the examples above from my correspondent.

DA also makes sense semantically; each disjunct is interpreted separately as the subject of the verb (in contrast to conjunction, where the conjuncts taken together are interpreted as the subject of the verb).

Why doesn't the handbook explain at least some of this? No way to tell for sure, but possibly because of the unclarities in its notion of "subject". For the purposes of rule (0) (and for the corresponding rule for conjunction), the subject is the whole subject, which has "parts"; by talking merely about "parts", instead of saying that these subjects are compound and have multiple subjects as their parts, the handbook avoids the whole area of constructs of type X that have multiple parts of type X, a notion that many people find mind-bending. In addition, it's quite clear from the discussion of other examples that elsewhere what counts as the subject is a single word — the head word of the subject, in modern syntactic terminology — and the authors of the handbook might have wanted not to draw attention to their shifting use of the word "subject", so they didn't delve into details.

In any case, it would probably have been useful to explain to the reader that the problem in situations (2) and (3) is a conflict between conditions imposed by the grammar of english, and that nothing else in that grammar resolves the conflict.

(b) The handbook tries to cover all the situations might arise, and with a single principle.

Reasoning on first principles, you might think that if there is a conflict between conditions, then the construction is simply blocked. On the other hand, blocking frustrates the expression of content, so that reasoning on other first principles, you might think that conflicts are usually resolved. Indeed, Optimality Theory takes off from the claim that one condition usually "wins", outranks the others (so that expressibility is served as much as possible). OT-style analyses are natural when the conditions in question can be ranked with respect to one another — but the problem with DA is that we have no independently motivated way of picking out the winning disjunct, so that if there's to be resolution, it must be on the basis of some further principle. The handbook provides such a principle –- Agreement with the Nearest Disjunct (AND) — that is supposed to cover all the cases, including the uncontroversial cases in (1).

Now, there is some precedent for claiming that DA conflicts are irresolvable. Charles Fillmore suggested, many years ago, that some conflicts (these in particular) produced gaps in the predictions of the grammar, analogous to paradigm gaps in morphology. There are some things you just can't say. And, in fact, a great many speakers are deeply uncomfortable with any resolution of the conflicts in (2) and (3). Given that, the best advice to a careful writer would probably be to avoid the situations that give rise to DA conflicts. (There's no point in being "technically" correct, if what you write is going to annoy or baffle a significant number of your readers.)

(c) The handbook assumes that there is exactly one right way to do anything. Not only doesn't it allow for zero right ways — blocking — but it doesn't allow for alternatives, either. Yet when you collect judgments from speakers, some of them are equally happy with more than one resolution of DA conflicts (and different speakers sometimes prefer different alternatives). Alternatives are all over the place in languages, and it seems gratuitous to insist that the grammar of a language should always pick out One Right Way.

(d) There is evidence, in the handbook's own discussion, for a resolution principle different from AND. The crucial point here is that clause (2) has the writer reword sentences so that sg+pl disjuncts will have plural agreement:

Awkward   Neither the owners nor the contractor agrees.
Revised     Neither the contractor nor the owners agree.

That is, the handbook prefers Agreement with the Higher Number (AHN), but only in combination with the resolution principle it prescribes, AND.

The fact is, when you collect judgments (and examples from corpora) some speakers resolve via AHN, regardless of the order of the disjuncts:

Neither the owners nor the contractor agree.

Indeed, some speakers resolve by Agreement with the Higher Person (AHP), so that instead of rewording to avoid "awkwardness" in the way that the handbook prescribes,

Awkward   Either Juarez or I am responsible.
Revised     Either Juarez is responsible, or I am.

these speakers can resolve without rewording:

Either Juarez or I is responsible.

(Peter Peterson's 1986 study — "Establishing verb agreement with disjunctively conjoined subjects: Strategies vs. principles" (Australian Journal of Linguistics 6.231-49) — noted resolution on the basis of proximity (AND) and also, from Eric Partridge's Usage and Abusage, resolution in favor of higher number (AHN).)

(e) There is evidence, in speaker judgments and examples from corpora, for still another solution to DA conflicts in the singular: Defaulting to 3sg. That is, examples like the following can be found, and some speakers find them acceptable:

Neither you nor I is responsible.

Though the evidence from actual usage is quite complex, the handbook recognizes only AND. Now, agreement with the nearest (disjunct or conjunct), case-marking by the nearest, and determination of governed verb form by the nearest are all attested in various languages as the standard resolutions of conflicts, so that AND for English wouldn't be extraordinary from a crosslinguistic point of view. But then neither would principled resolutions of other sorts, or defaulting, or blocking, for that matter. All are attested, and often there's dialect variation with respect to the details. The point is that AND is in no way privileged on the basis of first principles or crosslinguistic considerations. Nor is it strongly supported by the evidence from actual usage. As i said above, the best advice to the careful writer is probably: don't go there!

(f) The handbook falls back on appeals to "awkwardness" (cited above). Similar appeals — to "euphony" or "smoothness" or "naturalness" or what "sounds right (or wrong)", that is, to some sort of Sprachgefuehl — are astonishingly common in works of advice for writers. (Writers are fairly often told to avoid stranded prepositions — unless they'd sound right!) They are problematic: after all, if the readers already had a feel for what is awkward vs. effective, smooth, etc., they wouldn't need the handbook.

Now, the handbook does provide (a few, well, two) exemplars of what counts as "awkward" in the world of DA sentences, but provides no hint as to how to extrapolate from them.

I understand that writing is an art and craft, and that teaching by exemplars ("do as i do" or "do as she does") is both honorable and effective. In that context, it's best to avoid rigid arbitrary "rules" in most situations. You may choose to accept such conventions, as when you propose to write a sonnet or a haiku, but otherwise it's a matter of developing a feel for what is likely to work and what isn't. In this context, some analysis of the nature of the choices involved can be very useful to the learner.

But, as I've said a number of times, it's a bad move to elevate advice about effective choices to claims about the grammar of English — in this case, to insist that AND (or any other of the schemes for dealing with DA conflicts) is just a rule of English grammar.

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