Both vs. Neither

By Maeve Maddox

The use of both where neither would be clearer and more idiomatic is fairly common, but inherently ambiguous.

Take for example, “Both men were not arrested.” Is the intended meaning “neither man was arrested” or “one man was arrested, but the other wasn’t”?

Here are some examples of statements that use both where neither is the better choice:

Original: Both of us didn’t have too good of a year (in 2013), and we’re seeing that in the attendance.
Better : Neither of us had too good of a year (in 2013), and we’re seeing that in the attendance.

Original: Both of us didn’t want to go to the Hospital but the fireman told us it would be best to get checked out.
Better : Neither of us wanted to go to the Hospital but the fireman told us it would be best to get checked out.

Original: Diaz and Felder tend to vote conservatively on social issues, so they both aren’t going to be happy with the abortion plank.
Better : Diaz and Felder tend to vote conservatively on social issues, so neither is going to be happy with the abortion plank.

Original: Trustees Michael Bubba and Eileen Albanese were also sworn in as trustees. They both have never held elected office.
Better : Trustees Michael Bubba and Eileen Albanese were also sworn in as trustees. Neither has ever held elected office.

In a few contexts, both + negative works:

Intimacy can’t happen if both aren’t present in the exchange.

The core similarity between them is that both aren’t so much political parties as they are social movements.

A general rule to keep in mind, however, is to avoid using both with a negative:

Both Smith and Jones are the children of noted politicians.

BUT

Neither candidate has ever held public office.

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10 Responses to “Both vs. Neither”

  • Jon

    Slightly off topic, (hypocrite that I am), The American English “of” always seems cumbersome to my British English sensibilities, such as in “too good of a year” but maybe it’s just me, and it is not too big of a deal.

    Is it a created Americanism? Or is it an older form that died out in British English before the language was exported to the Antipodean colonies? It isn’t a construct that I’ve heard in the mother country, or in Australia.

  • Tim Slager

    In the example, “One or both of us didn’t file a return,” I don’t think you can change “One or both didn’t” to “neither.” One could argue that the software should have included two checkboxes, one with Neither of us filed and another with One of us didn’t file. But, given that there is only one checkbox for both possibilities, the instructions are correct.

    The addition of “one or” removes ambiguity from “both” even if it is a bit awkward.

  • Lucas Appelmann

    What Tim Slager says – the example changes the meaning. Is is sufficient for one not to have filed a return? Then “neither” doesn’t apply. Only if both were required “neither” would work, but then “one” could be omitted.

  • Fran

    I agree with Tim re the “One or both of us didn’t file a return” example. “Neither” makes it a completely different statement and uncheckable If one person *did* file a return.

    You could say, “At least one of us didn’t file a return,” though I personally like the two checkboxes solution best!

  • Maeve

    Tim,
    I’ve had second thoughts about that one. The original wording is awkward, but I think that in the context it is clearer than my “improvement.” I’ve asked Daniel to scrap it. Thanks.

  • Maeve

    Jon,
    Interesting question. I’ll look into it. I didn’t think about editing out the “of” when I corrected for the both/neither. My first reaction is that it is nonstandard usage. Very common, though.

  • Roberta B.

    @Tim Slager………..and that’s because when it comes to taxes, the filing is done either as: 1) a household (married couple, including minor children), or 2) an individual (allowed even if married). In fact, there actually would be as many as four scenarios: a) both (jointly/together), b) both/each (separately as individuals), c) one or the other, or d) neither/none. It gets even more complicated now with some new definitions of who can claim to be married. Since the tax system is full of convoluted logic and unfair application, it probably is a poor example for anything!

  • Kari

    @Jon
    I’m a US freelance editor, and I don’t like that use of “of” either! I agree with Maeve: nonstandard, but exceedingly common.

  • venqax

    @Jon: I’m American and that “of” construction always sounds bad to me, too. Don’t know why, it just sound grammatically suspicious, or something.

  • Jon

    @Maeve et al

    Thank you for confirming that it is not exclusively an American-vs-British thing.

    Exposure to 30 years of British English, plus 10 years of Australian English, both of which are affected by the ubiquity of American English, has clouded my memory, and my ‘ear’ for such things.

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