You or a loved one 'has' coverage or 'have' coverage?


Even though I've been editing a long time, I regularly find myself stumped by some language or editing conundrum whose answer I used to know.

Here’s an example: “How to know if you or a loved one have coverage.” When I came across a sentence like this recently, I didn’t notice the verb. Nor did I notice the verb in a nearly identical phrase that appeared later: “How to know if you or a loved one has coverage.” Eventually I saw they were different. “Have,” in the first example, is conjugated for the second-person singular subject: “you have.” In the second example, “has” is conjugated for the third-person singular: “a loved one has. ”

I’ve tackled these “or” situations hundreds of times over the years. But this time I just couldn’t remember which one was correct. So I had to brush up on the rules.

As I relearned, the answer isn’t simple. “Or” is unique among conjunctions because the way it joins nouns has a different meaning than the way its fellow conjunction “and” joins nouns. When a compound subject contains “and,” it’s easy to make the verb match: You and a loved one have coverage. By nature, “and” makes singular things plural: Ned is. Nancy is. Ned and Nancy are. It’s obvious you need the plural verb.

Here's the full story in my recent column.

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