Recently, I gave the class a question on the somehow complex construction, ‘Many a man (is/are) greedy’. In other words, I asked the class to choose between a singular and plural verb for the gap. I was not surprised that many people got it wrong, knowing how the expression is often mishandled in the outside world. Is it ‘Many a man is greedy’ or ‘Many a man are greedy’?
The concept being tested here is more of proximity, with the proximity rule demanding that when you have two nouns or pronouns forming the subject, the number of the verb is determined by the number of the noun close to it. This is not in terms of one, two, three numbers. It is in terms of whether the verb is singular or plural. In such a statement, proximity – not the posterity that judges in the outside world – becomes the judge.
First, in the given sentence there is ‘Many’, which is plural; and there is the singular ‘man’. If we want to operate by logic alone, the verb to use would be ‘are’, since we have given the idea of many. However, based on the law of proximity, ‘are’ is wrong because it is man (or a man) that is closer to the verb. Therefore, the correct expression is ‘Many a man is greedy.’
Consider the following too:
Many a foreigner want to live in peace. (Wrong)
Many a foreigner wants to live in peace. (Correct)
Many a politician like telling lies. (Wrong)
Many a politician likes telling lies. (Correct)
The ‘Neither/nor’ expression is another one where you have to be conscious of the law of proximity. Normally, there is the rule that once you have two nouns joined by the two words (neither, nor), you go for the singular verb. That rule is sensible but a bit dangerous. It is correct in this context:
Neither the girl nor the boy knows the place. (Correct)
Neither Chief Gabriel nor Elder Gerald has completed the payment. (Correct)
But the first situation issues may arise is when the nouns are plural:
Nether the boys nor the girls knows the place. (Wrong)
Neither the boys nor the girls know the place. (Correct because both nouns or noun phrases are plural.)
In terms of the proximity rule, even if the first noun is singular, and the second, which is closer to the verb, is plural, we opt for the plural verb:
Neither the boy nor the girls knows the place. (Wrong)
Neither the boy nor the girls know the place. (Correct)
This also suggests that if the first noun or pronoun is plural and the second is singular, by the proximity rule the singular will choose the number of the verb:
Neither the boys nor the girl knows the place.
The explanation under ‘neither/nor’ applies when ‘either/or’ is being used in the context:
Either the President or the minister has arrived.
Either the President or the ministers have arrived.
Either the Presidents or the minister has arrived.
Based on the points raised above, what is your option between the two below?
Not only Professor Ikenga but also the secretaries often (comes/come) early.
Is it ‘come’ or ‘comes’? The expression closer to the verb is plural; so, we pick the plural verb:
Not only Professor Ikenga but also the two secretaries come early.
This means that the following is also correct:
Not only the two secretaries but also Professor Ikenga comes early.
Meanwhile, you must watch for landmines with ‘as well as’, ‘together with’ and ‘alongside’ expressions, which are ‘naturally’ grammatically considered so weak that the item they introduce has no impact on the number of the verb:
Kunle, as well as Ngozi, is very brilliant.
Kunle, as well as the twins, are brilliant. (Wrong)
Kunle, as well as the twins, is brilliant.
You could see that the law of proximity does not apply this time around.
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