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'Either . . . Or' and 'Neither . . . Nor' — What They Mean, and How to Use Them Correctly | Mastering Grammar

(Last Updated: 4 April 2024)


Understanding Either . . . Or and Neither . . . Nor

The correlative conjunctions either . . . or and neither . . . nor are essential tools in English for presenting alternatives and negating pairs of options respectively.

Either . . . Or

Either . . . or is used when presenting two possible alternatives or choices, where only one may come to pass:

You can have either tea or coffee with your breakfast. (You have a choice between two beverages, but you can't choose both.)

We can go to either Disneyland or Ocean Park. (The choice is between two locations, not both.)

Either Sarah or Megan will join the meeting today. (Only one of the two people will join, not both.)

For our holiday, we can travel to either Japan or Korea. (The holiday will be in one of the two countries, not both.)

Either you apologise or I will not speak to you again. (The condition presented is that an apology leads to communication; without it, there will be none.)

Neither . . . Nor

Neither . . . nor is used when you want to negate two options simultaneously, indicating that neither of the options is true or possible:

Neither the blue shirt nor the red one fits me. (Both shirts are unsuitable in terms of fitting.)

She's interested in neither sports nor arts. (Both sports and arts fail to interest her.)

Neither the manager nor his assistant was at the office today. (Both the manager and his assistant were absent from the office.)

We have neither the time nor the resources to complete the project. (We lack both time and resources.)

The phone was neither in my bag nor on my desk. (The phone was not found in either of the two locations mentioned.)

The Importance of Parallel Structure

Parallel structure, or parallelism, is the practice of using the same pattern of words to show that two or more elements are equally important. When using either . . . or or neither . . . nor, ensuring that the elements being linked have the same grammatical structure is crucial for clarity and elegance:

You must either be on time or arriving early. (Be and arriving do not match each other.)
✅ You must either be on time or arrive early. (Be and arrive do match each other.)

She either studies at home or in the library. (Studies and in the library do not match each other.)
She studies either at home or in the library. (At home and in the library do match each other.)

I'm either going to buy the black jacket or the blue one—I can't decide. (Going to buy and the blue one do not match each other.)
I'm going to buy either the black jacket or the blue one—I can't decide. (The black jacket and the blue one do match each other.)

Tom neither likes science nor history. (Likes and history do not match each other.)
Tom likes neither science nor history. (Science and history do match each other.)

❌ The public had neither sympathy for the robber nor for his family. (Sympathy and for his family do not match each other.)
✅ The public had sympathy for neither the robber nor his family. (The robber and his family do match each other.)

Subject-Verb Agreement

When two subjects are joined by either . . . or or neither . . . nor, the verb should agree with the subject closest to it. This is sometimes referred to as the rule of proximity:

Either Tom or John has eaten the pizza. (John is singular, so has is used.)

Either my brother or my parents have forgotten to turn off the air-conditioner. (My parents is plural, so have is used.)

Neither the teacher nor the students have arrived yet. (The students is plural, so have is used.)

Neither my parents nor my sister knows the answer to that question. (My sister is singular, so knows is used.)

Neither the assistant nor the manager has the keys. (The manager is singular, so has is used.)

Remember, using either . . . or and neither . . . nor correctly enables you to express choices and negations clearly and effectively. Keep practising the rules of parallel structure and subject-verb agreement to ensure your English is both correct and natural-sounding.

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Examples from the Media

We're either lazing in the sunshine or cowering in the dark  and both must stop. Daily Mail (2020)

The findings about the UK are bleak. Fewer than one in four of us has confidence in either the government or parliament and fewer than one in seven has confidence in the political parties. That's a historic low. —The Guardian (2023)

Either invest or face more turmoil at Ontario’s colleges and universities. —Toronto Star (2017)

No account of Norrie's story can get too far without making some grammatical decisions. While some people fighting Norrie's cause to be legally recognised as neither male nor female employ gender-neutral pronouns such as "hir" or "zhe", Norrie, to make communication easier, is personally comfortable being referred to as "her" and "she". The Sydney Morning Herald (2010)

Neither China nor the US wants a hot war. South China Morning Post (2020)

From a scientist's perspective, the emergence of humanity as a global force of nature is neither good nor bad. It's just a fact supported by overwhelming evidence. The New York Times (2011)

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