A reader wrote this morning:
I have a doubt about a translation I’m doing regarding the use of is or are. The more I think about it, the more unsure I feel about the right word to use. Perhaps you can help me. The sentence is as follows:
If the iron, cord or plug is damaged...
And that's the correct usage. When we use "or," we're saying only one of those nouns is the real subject. But it raises a lot of related questions.
When we have a compound subject, two or more nouns linked with "and," we use a plural verb:
Tom and Jerry are going to the conference.
But when we use the conjunction "or" between the nouns, and the nouns are singular, we use a singular verb:
Tom or Jerry is going to conference.
That is, only one of them is going and therefore only one of them is the subject of the sentence.
If the nouns are plural, then the verb will be plural too:
The Thompsons or the Wongs are going to the conference.
But what if one noun is plural and the other is singular? Then the verb agrees with the noun that is closer to the verb:
Bob Thompson or the Wongs are going to the conference.
The Wongs or Bob Thompson is going to the conference.
I know—the second version may be correct, but it sounds odd. And it's likely to make readers stop and say: "Huh? Is that right?" When the way we write distracts readers from what we're actually saying, we need to rewrite. So if I had to tell my readers about who's going to Europe, I'd try something like this:
Either Bob Thompson or the Wongs will go to the conference.