A writer friend of mine posted a social media query asking for advice on verb choice. The phrase in question was “… since everyone and his poodle own/owns a gun…” Should the verb be in the singular or the plural?
More than fifty people weighed in. Some reasoned that there was a compound subject but the noun closest to the verb is singular, so the writer should choose owns. That thinking is based on the prescriptive rule for disjunctions like or rather than conjunctions like and. When there is a compound subject joined by or, the noun closest to the verb determines agreement:
Neither the coach nor the players were at fault.
Neither the students nor the teacher is correct.
But with and, compound nouns are generally in the plural, regardless of order:
The coach and the players were at fault.
The players and the coach were at fault.
The students and the teacher are correct.
The teacher and the students are correct.
So should the verb be the plural own because the compound subject is connected by and? Some people suggested resolving the issue by relying on substitution or analogy: “Both the poodle and everyone are singular,” someone proposed. “Replace them both with other normal singular nouns to figure out the construction.”
Substitution and analogy are often useful tools in figuring out a grammatical pattern, but are everyone and his dog normal singular nouns? Not really. Everyone is what’s known as an indefinite pronoun which, like its less formal counterpart everybody, is singular (we say Everyone is reading, not Everyone are reading). By itself, the phrase his dog would also be singular, but his dog is not functioning as a normal noun in the expression Everyone and his dog.
Instead, it is being used idiomatically—non-referentially—to emphasize everyone. Everyone and his dog is a folksy way of emphasizing everyone, but the verb would still be the singular owns. The situation is similar to Every Tom, Dick and Harry, which is another emphatic idiom: we would not write Every Tom, Dick and Harry own a gun.
We can check result this too by ear if we replace own/owns with a verb that shows more contrast between singular and plural, like the forms of to be.
Everyone and his dog is on the road today.
Every Tom, Dick and Harry is at the park.
Everyone and his dog are on the road today.
Every Tom, Dick and Harry are at the park.
Semantics, substitution and an ear for what sounds natural help us to resolve such grammatical puzzles. Sometimes too they open the door to interesting further issues.
As some commenters on Everyone and his dog pointed out, there is also the question of the pronoun. One suggested that everyone and everybody “used to be” singular and thus required singular pronouns (as in Everyone has his or her own cup), but that today more and more speakers, writers, and style guides were recommending singular their. It’s certainly true that singular their is well on its way to becoming the norm, but the idea that everyone and everybody used to require singular verbs needs some context and correction.
Their has been used to refer to everyone and everybody pretty much as long as English has been written. The earliest OED citation is from the late 14th century in Wycliffe’s Bible: “Each one in their craft is wise” (“Eche on in þer craft ys wijs“) and singular their was used by such writers as Shakespeare, Thackeray, and Austen. It was when grammarians got their hands on English that some started worrying about their disagreeing with one, as linguist Ann Bodine pointed out in her 1975 article “Androcentrism and Prescriptive Grammar.”
Over time, their has become increasingly used as an alternative to the generic masculine (as in Every student should make an appointment with their advisor, Who thinks they can solve the problem, or The next president will have to quickly determine their priorities). And it is commonly used as an alternative to singular gendered pronouns (as in Finn asked me to let you know they would be a little late). As Dennis Baron, has wonderfully documented in his What’s Your Pronoun: Beyond he and she, there is a long history to the use of gender-neutral and gender neutral pronouns and the debates surrounding them.
In the end, after much back and forth between owns and own, idioms and compounds, and his and their, the final result was Everyone and their poodle owns a gun.
And everyone got to express their opinion.