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Lesson 2.9 Correlative Conjunctions (and Subject-Verb Agreement)

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Like regular conjunctions (the FANBOYS, see 5.3), correlative conjunctions also conjoin two phrases of the same type.


The underlined verb phrases are conjoined.


            In the summer, Jo will either take ballet or travel to Oregon.


The underlined noun phrases are conjoined.


            Neither your mother nor your father signed the permission slip.


The underlined participial verb phrases are conjoined.


            She is not only running for president, but also starting a new business.


When you used correlative conjunctions to conjoin subjects, there is variation in how writers (and speakers) select the verb form. If both parts of the subject are singular, writers will typically used the verb form that agrees with a singular subject:


            Either the cat or the dog wakes me up early.


                        (3rd person singular verb form, wakes, agreeing with the cat or the dog, but not both)


Rather than the form of the verb, wakes, that would agree with a plural subject:


            Either the cat or the dog wake me up early.


But when the two parts of the subject differ in number – one is singular and one is plural – there is more than one way to make the verb agree, and not everyone agrees on which is more acceptable. The grammar of the language really has more than one way of resolving this, and you’ll find the variations even in edited written academic English.


            Either June or I am going.          (verb am agrees with the part of the subject closest to the verb, I)

            Either June or I is going.             (verb is agrees with the first part of the subject, June)

            Either June or I are going.          (verb are agrees with the conjoined plural subject, June, I)


Most usage guides will suggest simply revising the sentence to something like this:


            Either June is going, or I am.


It’s important to note that making the verb agree with the part of the subject closest to the verb is a common strategy, but is not a rule of grammar. This kind of construction is one of the few places in the grammar of the language where one is left with no option sounding quite right. So you can revise completely, or you can use a modal verb (can, could, will, etc. – see Lesson 1.4g) since these do not require agreement and always have the same form:


Select the verb that you think sounds the best in the following. If you differ in your judgments, discuss! If you cannot agree on the verb, revise the sentence altogether.


            Either my parents or I ____ going to pick you up.

            Neither your cousins nor your aunt ______ coming to the dance recital.

            I wonder whether my dog or one of my cats _______  eating the trash.


[Teacher note: There’s a fairly good discussion of this issue with more examples here.]


key words: punctuation, subject-verb agreement, conjunctions, correlative conjunctions


CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.3.1h Use coordinating and subordinating conjunctions. 

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.3.1i Produce simple, compound, and complex sentences.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.4.1f Produce complete sentences, recognizing and correcting inappropriate fragments and run-ons 

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.4.2c Use a comma before a coordinating conjunction in a compound sentence. 

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.5.1a Explain the function of conjunctions, prepositions, and interjections in general and their function in particular sentences. 

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.5.1e Use correlative conjunctions (e.g., either/or, neither/nor). 


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