Understanding “Either … Or” and “Neither … Nor”

By Ali Hale

Books

If you’re presenting two alternatives, you’ll often use an “either … or” or a “neither … nor” construction. Here’s how those work:

You can choose either cereal or toast for your breakfast.

My friend’s car is neither green nor brown.

Either is used in the affirmative sense, when you’re presenting possibilities that are both true or valid.

Neither is used in the negative sense, when you’re presenting things that aren’t true or valid.

So far, so straightforward – but you might have some questions about using “either … or” and “neither … nor” correctly.

What About “Neither … Or”?

You may well have come across sentences like these:

I’m neither angry or upset.

This isn’t grammatically correct. The sentence should be rewritten as I’m neither angry nor upset.

However, using “neither … nor” can sound unduly formal or even a little archaic. If you want to avoid that, consider rewriting the sentence (e.g. “I’m not angry and I’m not upset.”)

Can You Use “Either … Or ” and “Neither … Nor” With More That Two Items?

You might wonder whether sentences like these are permissible:

She will have to choose either Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday.

There is neither bread, milk, nor jam.

Grammarians differ on this point, but there’s a long history of both “either … or” and “neither … nor” being used for three or more items. If you’re writing for a particularly formal publication, though, you might want to stick to just two items when you’re using “either … or” or “neither … nor”.

Some Additional Rules for “Either … Or”  and “Neither … Nor”

It can be tricky to figure out verb agreement when you’re using these constructions. Here’s what you need to know:

Use a Singular Verb if Both Elements Are Singular

If the alternatives presented are both singular, then use a singular verb, like this:

Either James or Mary has hidden the sweets.

Neither the van nor the car is fast enough.

Use a Plural Verb if One (or Both) Elements Are Plural

If one or both of the alternatives are plural, use a plural verb:

Either the boys or the girls have hidden the sweets.

Neither the van nor the cars are fast enough.

Omit “Either” But Not “Neither”

It often makes sense to have a sentence without the word “either”, such as:

James or Mary has hidden the sweets.

The boys or the girls have hidden the sweets.

However, you can’t omit “neither” from a sentence – the “nor” can’t stand on its own.

Here are some quick rules of thumb to remember about “either … or” and “neither … nor”:

  • The word either should never be paired with
  • The word neither should never be paired with
  • You can only use nor in a sentence if there’s a neither (Some people say that “not … nor” is also a valid construction, but it’s safer to stick with “neither”).

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1 Response to “Understanding “Either … Or” and “Neither … Nor””

  • Michael Tardie

    The first two items in the quick rules of thumb seem incomplete…?

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