neither … nor + plural verb

The following question reached me yesterday. It was forwarded to me by Joan Beal on behalf of her colleague Neil Roberts from the Department of English Literature at Sheffield:

"Can anyone enlighten me about this sentence, which I have just been shocked to find in Pride and Prejudice?

  • ‘Neither Jane nor Elizabeth were comfortable on this subject.’

This is a sentence that we would consider illiterate if written by a student. Is the rule about ‘neither’ being followed by a singular verb more recent than the early 19th century, or did Jane Austen nod?"

Comments welcome!

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  1. Neil Roberts

    I didn’t realise that I was starting off an
    international debate! I would agree that this construction, like many others, is acceptable in speech but not in writing. I subsequently
    discovered that in Pride and Prejudice Lydia, the wayward sister of the heroine, twice uses ‘Kitty and me’as a subject phrase. I can’t decide if this is intended as an indication of how badly Lydia has been brought up, or another case whre JA has not
    internalised prescriptive grammar!

  2. ingrid tieken

    Neil Roberts is right in signalling his unease with this construction. Perhaps it helps to know that he is not alone in this, as comments on the phenomenon, which is in fact a problem of concord, go back to the eighteenth century (as Richard Dury illustrates with his reference to the OED. In 1970, a book came out, called Attitudes to English Usage, in which the authors (W.H. Mittins, Mary Salu, Mary Edminson and Sheila Coyne) report on a survey they carried out among teachers, examiners, students and so on, about the acceptability of fifty usage problems. Neither … nor + plural verb was one of them. They found that only the students found it acceptable, and only in informal speech. Now, thirty years later, these students should be teachers and examiners themselves, and perhaps Neil Robert’s response indicates that they may have made a complete turn-around here! Further comments invited!

  3. Richard Dury

    The OED for Neither A.1.c (adjective, as in the Jane Austen quote) has

    (c) With two singular subjects and plural verb (e.g. Neither Captain Percy Scott nor his dotter were on view.)

    It is as a *pronoun* B.1.(b) (e.g. ‘neither was there’ versus ‘neither were there’) that 18C grammarians criticized the use of the plural verb.


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