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What is the correct way to use is / are in sentences where you talk about either several persons / objects, or a single person / object? If you're expecting company and you know it will either be one girl or several boys, you might want to ask a question such as:

  • Are the boys or the girl coming?
  • Is the girl or the boys coming?

The latter one seems strange, but I can't tell if it grammatically incorrect. Do I have to say something like: "Is the girl or are the boys coming?".

Can I use both forms? Should I use is or are if I put the single object first in the sentence?

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    I don't know a native AmE speaker who would say Sentence 2, and I know some AmE speakers who speak some extremely nonstandard English... Most people I know would reword it to avoid the situation. – user20792 Dec 16 '15 at 11:12
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    >>I know I can rephrase those two sentences to avoid the "problem", but this is a general question. Generally, rephrasing sentences like this - whether it's a clash of plurals, or tenses etc - is the solution. – mcalex Dec 16 '15 at 17:42
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Both are understandable.
I've mostly heard the following used:

Is the girl coming or are the boys?
Are the boys coming or is the girl?

An implicit difference is in emphasis, the more preferred of the options would be mentioned first, i.e. preference for the girl showing up :

Is the girl coming or the boys?

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    The first option you gave (using both is and are in the sentence) is what I would use as a native speaker. – stangdon Dec 16 '15 at 13:13
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It seems you are aware of the basic rule in English that a singular subject requires a singular verb and a plural subject requires a plural verb (cf. "Subject-verb concord", pp 755ff in Quirk, et al. 1985, A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (commonly referred to as CGEL), which this answer cites for purposes of reference.

You have set up a scenario where it is impossible (my word) to follow this basic rule. This is because, per CGEL 10.41, "Coordination with or and nor":

The rules are different for subject phrases or clauses which are coordinated with (either...) or...Grammatical concord is clear when each member in coordination has the same number: when they are both singular...the verb is singular; when they are both plural...the verb is plural. A dilemma arises when one member is singular and and the other plural... Notionally, or is disjunctive, so that each member is separately related to the verb rather than the two members being considered one unit, as when the coordinator is additive and. Since the dilemma is not clearly resolvable by the principles of grammatical concord or notional concord, recourse is generally had to the principle of proximity: whichever phrase [is closest] to the verb determines the number of the verb.

You follow this principle of proximity concord with the two sentences you write:

Are the boys or the girl coming?

Is the girl or the boys coming?

However, as I stated in my initial comment, I do not know a native speaker who would say or write the second sentence. Perhaps someone who is a pedant or a grammar nazi would, but I do not hang around such types. This is because in cases such as this, native speakers I know resort to their ear to decide grammaticality. And if the ear says no then they will seek to use a more pleasing-sounding alternative.

Quirk, et al.:

If the [singular/plural] number alternatives for the verb are both felt to be awkward, speakers may avoid making a choice by postposing the second noun phrase or sometimes by substituting a modal auxiliary (cf 10.44).

In your case these tactics result in these changes:

Are the boys coming, or is the girl?

Will the girl or the boys be coming?

Note that the construction will be coming refers to future time as much as is coming.

There are, of course, other ways to rearrange the sentence, but you specifically stated not to. So I stick only with the two strategies mentioned by CGEL to solve this case.

You may be interested this answer to IS or ARE? “The only thing that I want you to hit right now IS/ARE the books”, because it also references proximity concord.

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Remember...

There is a boy.
There is a girl.

can be combined into...

There is a boy and girl.

But when the number is different, the subject-verb agreement would depend on the noun it is adjacent to.

There are three apples and a banana on the table.

but...

There is an apple and three bananas on the table.

So, considering the nearest noun type, it'd take 'is' or 'are'.

In your example,

Are boys or a girl coming?
Is a girl or boys coming?

[not touching whether to include 'the']

  • Still -1 and still providing horrendous grammar. See this answer regarding There's. Basically There's (not There is) can be used in a sentence like There's an apple and three bananas on the table. – user20792 Dec 16 '15 at 12:05
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    I decide to leave this answer alone, not -1 or +1, even though it could look almost correct now. Posting an incorrect answer in an authoritative voice, and continuing to fix it until it gets right according to comments from others shouldn't be encouraged, in my humble opinion. It can give false illusion. It can decrease the chance that the OP can get a good answer in the first place (because people tend to skip answered questions in small communities). And it can affect the quality of our site as a whole. – Damkerng T. Dec 16 '15 at 12:18
  • @NES the answer you linked to does not talk about 'There's or There is'. It talks about whether 'There's' can be used for plural. – Maulik V Dec 16 '15 at 12:35
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    @DamkerngT. Sir, isn't it better to come up with the precise answer then criticising someone? – Rucheer M Dec 16 '15 at 12:37
  • @RuchirM that's fine. He comments more and answers seldom. But his comments are no less than answers! :) – Maulik V Dec 16 '15 at 12:39

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