Neither… or?

By Maeve Maddox

Because I was taught a long time ago that either is used with or, and neither is used with nor, constructions like these bother me:

“Neither Mrs Thatcher or I, would have any time for the sisterhood approach” says Ann Widdecombe
No further details have been released, and neither Kim or Kanye have mentioned any engagement on Twitter.

Even though this is a rule of which I am absolutely certain, I did my usual warm-up research before writing about the errors in these quotations. I discovered that not everyone who writes about usage agrees on the immutability of this rule.

First I looked up neither in the OED. There I found an entry for neither…or. All it says is:

Numerous grammarians from the mid-18th century onwards criticize the use of or rather than nor as ungrammatical and improper.”

This note is followed by twelve examples of the use of neither…or from 1395 to 1997.

Next stop, Merriam-Webster:

neither: used as a function word before two or more words, phrases, or clauses joined by nor or sometimes by or

In addition to allowing or in the regular definition, M-W gives a further nod to the neither…or usage in a note:

Although use with or is neither archaic nor wrong, the conjunction neither is usually followed by nor.

Leaving the dictionaries, I looked in at the Columbia Journalism Review where I found an article by Merrill Perlman which quotes various authorities and concludes with a litany of contradictory advice as to what is correct or incorrect usage with neither certain to leave any reader confused.

So, is “neither…or” all right to use? No, not in modern usage.

People who have the leisure and inclination to argue about such things are free to do so. Those who just want to write inoffensive standard English are advised to go with the conventional rule that either is used with or and neither is used with nor.

You don’t have to take my word for it:

If two or more particular things or people are being mentioned, neither is followed by nor, not by or…–Penguin Writer’s Manual (2002)

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


Share


6 Responses to “Neither… or?”

  • Barb @.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this one! I so agree with you. I get riffed when I see “neither” without its parner, “nor.”

    Would you please address the sentences that start with, “Not only is it expensive, its …” and such? I am seeing many articles with wording like that, and it usually looks strange to me.

    Keep at it – I love your tips and writing advice!

  • Dale A. Wood

    Question: “a litany of contradictory advice as to what is correct or incorrect usage with neither certain to leave any reader confused.”

    Didn’t you mean “a litany of contradictory advice as to what is correct or incorrect usage with EITHER certain to leave any reader confused.”?
    Here, “either” refers to “correct (usage)” or “incorrect usage”.
    Another way of saying it would be: “a litany of contradictory advice as to what is correct or incorrect usage with BOTH certain to leave any reader confused.”? Confusion surely has a way of multiplying?

    Bugs Bunny once said, “If there’s anything that we rabbits know how to do, it’s multiply!” Aussies know this very well. Australia was overrun by rabbits that were set loose there by European immigrants. There, the rabbits did not have their natural predators from elsewhere, such as coyotes, wolves, foxes, cougars, wildcats, jaguars, leopards, etc.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Yes, amen, and touché!

    “Those who just want to write inoffensive standard English are advised to go with the conventional rule that either is used with or and neither is used with nor.”

  • Sally Asnicar

    I find it is useful to read the sentence out loud. When I read those two sentences out loud, I instinctively said ‘nor’ even though they read ‘or’, so I would go with nor.

  • venqax

    This is interesting. I actually “learned” somewhat the opposite. The first authority I can remember consulting about this (maybe Bernstein? I can’t remember) offered the “loose” view above that it is preferrable in general to pair neither with nor, but not necessary and not “wrong” to say neither… or. I have always paired neither and nor just because it “sounds” right, anyway.

  • Loïc

    Very interesting !
    I have to say I did the same kinds of researches which left me a little confused too…

    I will remember that “neither… or” will be found in spoken English, whereas the correct form remains “neither…nor”.

    Although I found that in spoken English, it can sound a little odd to use “neither… nor” in some cases…

Leave a comment: