Learn English – Controversy over verb choice in “neither you nor I {is/am/are} in control”

ambiguitydisjunctiongrammatical-numbergrammaticalityverb-agreement

I was watching the film A Game of Shadows starring Robert Downey Junior and Jude Law when this line came up, "…neither you nor I is in control…" (I can’t remember the exact words that ended the phrase; if anyone can supply them, it would be much appreciated.)

It immediately struck me as being odd. When I mentioned this to my boyfriend; an English native speaker, with a PhD in something sciency, he told me it was correct. When I asked why, he couldn't explain but put forward the following sentence as an example. "Neither of us is in control…" However, I disagreed with the wording and said the sentence should have been: "Neither one of us is in control…" The genderless third person, one, is singular, and hence, so too the verb that follows. And we say, "one is" NOT "one are".

"Neither you nor I are in control over …"

I believe the above sounds better, but it is more logical to say:

"Neither you nor I am in control…"

because the verb agrees with the subject closest to it; however, I'm not sure if I have ever read or heard this solution. So, I tried inverting the subject and auxiliary verb order and the resulting phrase was:

  • "Neither you nor am I in control…"

which sounds very formal, pompous, and … odd. Am I imagining things?

The two subjects you and I are two separate individuals who are not joined together, I agree the verb should be in the singular; but why should we use "is"? We don't say, "you is" or "I is". Before anyone rushes off to claim my question is a duplicate of a previous Stackexchange one: "Neither Michael nor Albert is correct" or "Neither Michael nor Albert are correct"? I want to explain why the answer to that question fails to explain why my boyfriend and the film makers consider the sentence below correct:

Neither you nor I is in control…

As I see it, Michael and Albert are two separate individuals, it therefore stands to reason that the verb should be singular, and "is" agrees with the subject. If I rephrase the neither and nor construction, I would get:

  • Michael is not correct but neither is Albert
    OR
  • Michael is not correct and Albert isn't either.

Which have the same meaning, (either being the negative equivalent of neither) the sentences are grammatical which leads me to conclude that the verb must be singular and hence

  • Neither Michael nor Albert is correct

However, when I rephrase the "neither you nor I" sentence following the same procedure I have to say this:

  • You are not in control but neither am I (‘I am’ is ungrammatical)
    OR
  • You are not in control and I’m not either.

which leads me to surmise that the sentence below must be grammatically correct

  • Neither you nor I am in control"

So, why does my boyfriend insist that the sentence ought to be:

Neither you nor I is in control

Which one of us is right and why?

Best Answer

When subjects are connected with neither/nor, the one closest to the verb controls the agreement. Thus, neither you nor I am. Why? Because lots of English grammar books say so.

Sounds awkward? It does. Lots of other English grammar books agree and so does actual usage. As you can see, there's an actual controversy here. There are workarounds that would please adherents of both viewpoints. The easiest one is probably neither I nor you are, but most of your proposed variations would work.

Of course "*Neither you nor I is" is totally wrong, because is doesn't agree with anything in this phrase.