It seems that California Teacher Guy is going for the A grade in class participation! Since I blew it last week (she says with sheepish consternation), I’m going to try to make it up to him here…
My Dear Mrs. Chili,
In her most recent blog post, Pissed Off, who writes from New York City, comments on an incident that happened practically in my backyard:
Sep 14, 9:45 PM (ET)
PALM SPRINGS, Calif. (AP) – A teacher and a 14-year-old student were arrested after trading blows during an argument over taking out trash at the desert’s Riverside County Community School.
Teacher Thomas Silva, 61, was arrested and booked for investigation of willful cruelty to a child, while the teenager was arrested for battery on a school employee, Sgt. Mitch Spike said Thursday. Both were released.
“Neither one of their actions were justified,” the sergeant said.
Methinks the good sergeant needs a lesson in grammar from Mrs. Chili!
CTG, you’re absolutely right – the good sergeant DOES need a grammar lesson, and one for which I imagine a lot of people could use a refresher.
The sergeant’s mistake is thinking that “actions” is the subject of the sentence, “neither one of their actions were justified.” In grammatical reality, however, actions is being used as a modifier for neither which is being used as a pronoun here and is the actual subject of the sentence. We can remove the phrase “of their actions” and still have a sentence that makes sense as it was originally intended – neither was justified. Neither what? Neither one of their actions.
The subject of a sentence never comes after an “of” phrase:
That pile of rocks blocks the back door to the garage.
Each of the politicians has an equal chance of winning the election.
None of you has your homework?!
In the first sentence, our subject is the singular pile, not the plural rocks. The same goes for the second sentence – the subject is each which is also singular; we’re talking about this politician and that politician and that politician separately – ANY of them could win singularly.
In the third sentence, the subject is none – and nearly ALL my students think that I’m wrong when I use the singular “has” instead of the plural “have.” It usually brings up the collective noun conversation and I have to explain to my lovelies that yes, they’re a class – a group, a collective noun – but they’re functioning within that group as individuals; each of them is separately responsible for his or her own homework. They’re almost always confused, so I give them these examples:
The chorus practices at 6:30 on Mondays and Wednesdays.
The chorus were given their sheet music last week.
In the first sentence, the chorus is behaving as a collective – they ALL practice together, as a group, on Mondays and Wednesdays at 6:30 – so we can use a singular verb form, practices. In the second sentence, though, the chorus, while still a group, is functioning individually: the tenors get one version of the sheet music, the altos get another version, and the sopranos yet another. In that second sentence, we need a plural verb, were given. If I look out on a sea of glazed eyes, I ask them to change the nouns to pronouns. For the first sentence, they come up with “it” and, for the second, “they.” That helps them to understand which verb form to use.
Now, before my linguist buddies get all up in my stuff, I do have to concede that informal usage allows a plural verb after neither. I discovered this at the dictionary.com site:
As an adjective or pronoun meaning “not either,” neither is usually followed by a singular verb and referred to by a singular personal pronoun: Neither lawyer prepares her own briefs. Neither performs his duties for reward. When neither is followed by a prepositional phrase with a plural object, there has been, ever since the 17th century, a tendency, especially in speech and less formal writing, to use a plural verb and personal pronoun: Neither of the guards were at their stations. In edited writing, however, singular verbs and pronouns are more common in such constructions: Neither of the guards was at his station.
Being that Mrs. Chili (and, it would seem, California Teacher Guy) prefers the more formal, I teach my students to use the singular verb after the pronoun neither.
Happy Wednesday, Everyone!