John as well as Jane is, or John as well as Jane are?


You probably use “as well as” from time to time in your speech and writing. And chances are you’ve been using it so well, so effortlessly, that you have no idea how difficult it is to employ.

Behold: “He, as well as the producer, are Broadway newcomers.”

“The theme, as well as the writer’s art, makes the novel a work of art.”

“Available evidence as well as past experience suggests as much.”

“John as well as Jane was late for dinner.”

All these sentences are lifted from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English usage, the first three are real-world examples and the fourth a deliberately simplistic made-up usage. But they all prove the same point: As a coordinator — meaning a term that, like “and,” links nouns and other parts of speech — “as well as” is a minefield.

Look at the verbs to see what I mean. In the first example, the verb “are” suggests that the subject is plural — that “he as well as the producer” is grammatically the same as “he and the producer.” Hence it’s a plural subject with a verb to match: “he as well as the producer are.”

Now look at the verb in the second example, “makes.” That’s conjugated for a singular subject, like “Ed makes.” Yet the presumably singular subject of this sentence, “the theme, as well as the writer’s art,” is grammatically the same as “he as well as the producer.” Yes, this one has commas and, yes, those commas seem to have an effect on whether the subject is plural. But commas alone don’t explain why “the theme, as well as the writer’s art” takes the singular verb “makes.”

So what’s going on here? I explore the intricacies of as well as in my latest column.

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