by Susie Salmon THE LEGAL WORD
Susie Salmon is Assistant Director
of Legal Writing and Associate Clinical
Professor of Law at The University of
Arizona, James E. Rogers College of Law.
Before joining Arizona Law, she spent
nine years as a commercial litigator at
large firms in Tucson and Los Angeles.
But I Interrupt Myself
Each year, when I watch the president’s State of the
Union address, I like to read the pre-released text of the speech while I
watch. Why? Well, first, I’m a nerd. We know this. But I also like to see
where and how the president deviates from his prepared remarks and to
speculate about the reasons for those choices. Because I teach advocacy
and persuasion, reading while I listen also helps me to identify rhetorical
techniques that I can use as examples for my students. And—if I’m
being completely honest—I’ll admit that sometimes I like to skip to the
end to see how much longer the speech will be.
Finally—and this will come as no surprise—I enjoy finding usage
This year, the president and his speechwriters made a common error
that I’ll try to help you avoid in your formal legal writing. In listing
examples of “voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love,” Pres-
ident Obama identified “the volunteers at the polls who believe every
vote should count, because each of them, in different ways, know how
much that precious right is worth.”
The problem? The word each (like fellow single indefinite pronouns
anyone, anybody, either, every, and none) is considered a singular noun;
it takes a singular verb. Because each is the subject of the phrase, the
correct usage would be “each of them, in different ways, knows ….”
You also will encounter this issue when using neither or
either. When either word is ( 1) used as a pronoun and ( 2)
the subject of the sentence or clause, treat it as singular, even
where plural nouns appear between the subject and the verb.
• Neither attorney was prepared for the defendant’s
• Neither of the attorneys was (not were) prepared for the
• Either dog is responsible for that giant hole in the couch. 2
• Either of my dogs is (not are) capable of such destruction. 3
Subject–verb agreement with either or neither may become
more complicated, however, when you use
correlatives such as either/or or neither/nor.
There, you frequently have multiple subjects
that share one verb. If both subjects are sin-
gular, use the singular verb:
• Neither Petey nor Moose is (not are) a
• Either the attorney or her paralegal
knows (not know) what happened.
If both subjects are plural, use the plural
• Apparently, either dogs or cats destroy
What to do, though, if one subject is plural
and the other singular? Follow the proximity
instinct, and use a verb that agrees with the
subject closest to that verb in the sentence:
• Neither the attorney nor his clients are
responsible for those costs.
• Either the clients or the attorney knows
This proximity instinct will lead you astray,
however, when you interrupt your subject
and verb with longer phrases introduced by
such words as along with, as well as, besides,
• Melanie, as well as several of my other
friends from law school, shares (not
share) my obsession with the musical
• Mary Jo, not the human members of
the running group, leads (not lead) the
run on Thursday mornings.
Often, navigating the more treacherous variations on subject–verb agreement simply
requires mindful writing. To prevent the
proximity instinct from leading you astray—
or to avoid an overcorrection where the
proximity instinct would be trustworthy—
pause, identify the true subject of the sentence, and proceed accordingly.
1. Or maybe they’re just not as uptight about
these things as I am.
2. Grammatically correct, but factually untrue.
It was definitely Petey.
3. Technically true. But I know that Petey