Either-Or, Neither-Nor: How to Use Correctly

Summary

Use either-or to affirm the one or the other of two alternatives (I want either a cupcake or a muffin); use neither-nor to negate both alternatives (you can have neither a cupcake nor a muffin). Don’t use either to present more than two alternatives (either a cupcake, a muffin, or a bagel), but neither-nor may be used with more than two for emphasis (neither a cupcake, nor a muffin, nor a bagel). Always make sure the alternatives presented by either-or and neither-nor are grammatically balanced and parallel in structure.

Either-or, neither-nor

Use the paired conjunctions either-or and neither-nor to refer to the one or the other of two alternatives. Either-or affirms each of two alternatives, while neither-nor simultaneously negates them.

Examples
  • Either my mother or my father will call.
  • Neither the pizza nor the ice-cream is here.
  • Rita wants either a motorcycle or a water scooter for her birthday.
  • Poco likes neither tea nor coffee; he prefers carrot juice.

Either-or and neither-nor act as paired or correlative conjunctions: they connect two words, phrases, or clauses in a sentence.

Examples
  • Either salad or soup will be served for lunch.
  • I want neither the salad nor the soup.
  • Maya is neither happy nor sad about this.
  • Poco, who is neither qualified nor experienced, is now our manager.
  • You’ll need bread, either white or brown, for this recipe.
  • Either he wants the job, or he doesn’t.
  • Either you like chocolate, or you don’t.
  • Neither does she care, nor does she pretend to care.

Use of singular vs. plural verbs

When or or nor joins two subjects, the verb that follows should agree with the subject closest to it.

Examples
  • Neither the moon nor the stars are out tonight.
    The part closest to the verb is plural (“the stars”). Use a plural verb: “are” instead of “is.”
  • Neither the stars nor the moon is out tonight.
    The part closest to the verb is singular (“the moon”). Use “is” instead of “are.”
  • Neither you nor I am to blame.
  • Neither you nor they are to blame.
  • Either the tourists or the guide has the tickets.
  • Either the guide or the tourists have the tickets.
  • Either she or they have the tickets.
  • Neither they nor she has the tickets.
Tip

Use subject pronouns like I, he, she, and they when an either-or or neither-nor construction is the subject in a sentence. Use object pronouns like me, him, her, and them when it is the object.

Examples
  • Subject: Either he/him or she/her will help you.
  • Subject: Neither you nor they/them are wrong.
  • Object: You can ask either he/him or she/her for clarification.
  • Object: I have spoken to neither they/them nor she/her about this.

With more than two alternatives

Use either-or to present two possibilities. With more than two, omit either and use or by itself. In informal usage, more than two alternatives are sometimes presented using either; avoid such usage in formal writing.

Examples
  • You can have either cake, ice-cream, or lizard legs.
  • We could either watch a movie, go out for dinner, or play a board game.
  • Either Anita, Poco, or I will call you.
  • I can bake either cupcakes, muffins, or pies. Which do you prefer?

To emphasize the existence of numerous alternatives, the word or may be used multiple times in a list. Omit either before a list with more than two alternatives.

Example
  • You can either read a book or watch a movie or go out for dinner or play a game or call a friend or bake a cake: there are lots of things you can do on a Saturday.

Neither-nor constructions, on the other hand, may be used with more than two possibilities to emphasize the simultaneous negation of all the alternatives presented.

Examples
  • Neither Anita nor Poco nor Nesbit is qualified to operate on people.
  • Neither rain nor snow nor hail nor sleet can stop us now.
  • I can bake neither cupcakes nor muffins nor pies, but I do know how to boil an egg.

Here are a couple of examples from literature that show neither-nor being used to present more than two alternatives. Note how the neither-nor-nor structure emphasizes the negation of each alternative presented.

Examples
  • Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear.
    Bertrand Russell, Unpopular Essays (1950)
  • If Aunt Nancy really has any money beyond her annuity—and that’s what neither you nor I nor any living soul knows . . .
    L.M. Montgomery, Emily of New Moon (1923)

Omitting either and neither

When two alternatives are presented, either can generally be omitted without loss of meaning.

Examples
  • Correct: Either Anita or Poco will send you the report.
    Correct: Anita or Poco will send you the report.
    Both sentences mean that one of them will send the report.
  • Correct: You can have either pizza or cake.
    Correct: You can have pizza or cake.

The use of either can emphasize the exclusive nature of the options: you can choose either pizza or cake (but not both). However, omitting either from such a sentence is not grammatically wrong.

But don’t omit neither when nor joins two words or phrases. The conjunction neither is necessary to both grammar and meaning.

Examples
  • Incorrect: Tumkin nor Maya has a cat.
    Correct: Neither Tumkin nor Maya has a cat.
  • Incorrect: Poco drinks coffee nor tea.
    Correct: Poco drinks neither coffee nor tea.

Parallel structure

Either-or and neither-nor constructions must be parallel in structure: the two parts joined by or or nor should be grammatically balanced.

Examples
  • Incorrect: Lulu either wants a hat or an umbrella for her birthday.
    Lacks parallel structure: either is followed by a verb, while or is followed by a noun phrase.
    Correct: Lulu wants either a hat or an umbrella for her birthday.
    We have parallel structure: both either and or are followed by noun phrases (“a hat” and “an umbrella”).
  • Incorrect: Either poor Farley is foolish or unlucky.
    Correct: Poor Farley is either foolish or unlucky.
  • Incorrect: We should either call, or we should email them today.
    Correct: We should either call or email them today.
  • I either want a cupcake or a muffin.
    I want either a cupcake or a muffin.
  • Incorrect: I’ve neither received an email nor a message from them.
    Correct: I’ve received neither an email nor a message from them.
  • Incorrect: You have to neither pay, nor do you have to sign anything.
    Correct: Neither do you have to pay, nor do you have to sign anything.
  • You can neither have a cupcake nor a muffin.
    You can have neither a cupcake nor a muffin.
Tip

Parallel structure brings balance to a sentence and improves readability. In formal texts, use parallel structure across elements of equal importance.

Example
  • Incorrect: You can call, message, or you can send us an email.
    Correct: You can call, message, or email us.

Examples from literature

Here are some examples from published content of either-or and neither-nor being used to present two possibilities. Note how the authors write with parallel structure: or and nor join grammatically balanced elements.

Examples
  • Every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of either merit or sense.
    Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
  • Mr. Rochester, you must neither expect nor exact anything celestial of me.
    Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (1847)
  • I found it strange that neither I nor the day seemed in a mourning mood.
    James Joyce, “The Sisters,” Dubliners (1914)
  • The reverence they enjoyed was a life sentence, which they could neither revoke nor modify.
    Maya Angelou, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986)
  • The covers of books looked like coffins to her, either shabby or ornate, and what was inside them might as well have been dust.
    Alice Munro, Open Secrets (1994)
  • Within ten hours of the event, most of the scientists capable of pointing this out were either dead or insane.
    Stephen King, Cell (2006)

Quick Quiz

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Did You Know?

Both someone and anyone refer to an unspecified person but convey different ideas.
Know more:“Something” vs. “Anything,” “Someone” vs. “Anyone”