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

Summary

Use either-or to affirm the one or the other of two alternatives; neither-nor to negate them.

Examples
  • I want either a cupcake or a muffin.
  • You can have neither a cupcake nor a muffin.

Don’t use either to present more than two alternatives, but neither-nor can be used with more than two.

Examples
  • I can bake cupcakes, muffins, or pies. Which do you prefer?
  • I can bake neither cupcakes nor muffins nor pies, but I do know how to boil an egg.

Make sure the alternatives are grammatically balanced and parallel in structure.

Examples
  • Poor: I either want a cupcake or a muffin.
    Better: I want either a cupcake or a muffin.
  • Poor: You can neither have a cupcake nor a muffin.
    Better: You can have neither a cupcake nor a muffin.

Use subject pronouns like I and they in the subject position, and object pronouns like me and them in the object position.

Examples
  • Either Rita or I can eat the muffin.
  • This muffin is for neither Rita nor me.

The verb used should agree with the part closest to it.

Examples
  • Either Rita or her friends are going to eat all the cupcakes.
  • Either Rita’s friends or she is going to eat all the muffins.

How to use

Use the either-or and neither-nor pairs 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 constructions act as conjunctions: they connect two things with each other.

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.

Such constructions can also occur in relative clauses or be used to describe a noun.

Examples
  • Poco, who is neither qualified nor experienced, is now our manager.
  • Any bread, either white or brown, will do.

As conjunctions, either-or and neither-nor can join clauses in a sentence.

Examples
  • 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.
Note

Either-or and neither-nor are called correlative conjunctions. Other correlative conjunctions, which come in pairs, include both-and, not-but, and whether-or.

Examples
  • Both coffee and tea are available.
  • I don’t know whether I want coffee or tea.
  • Rita wants to drive not the car but the truck.

More than two alternatives

Use an either-or formulation to present two possibilities. In informal usage, more than two possibilities are sometimes presented, but this is generally avoided 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.

To emphasize that there are numerous alternatives, we sometimes use the word or multiple times in a list, but either is omitted 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.
  • 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)

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.
    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.
    Correct: Either we should call, or we should email them today.
  • 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.
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.

Omitting either and neither

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

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

Using either can emphasize the exclusive nature of the options: you can choose either pizza or cake, but not both. Linguistic authorities are divided in their opinion: in general, you can use either-or or just or, whichever you prefer.

However, when nor joins two words or phrases, neither shouldn’t be omitted.

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.

Pronoun usage: I or me?

Whether you use “I” or “me” with or and nor depends upon whether you are referring to the subject or the object in a sentence. The pronoun “I” goes in the subject position, while “me” fits in the object position in a sentence.

Examples
  • Either you or I/me can solve this problem.
    For the subject, use “I,” not “me.”
  • This cake is for neither you nor I/me.
    In the object position, use “me,” not “I.”

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

Examples
  • Either he/him or she/her can help you.
  • Neither you nor they/them are wrong.

In the object position, use object pronouns like me, him, her, and them.

Examples
  • Can you give this to either he/him or she/her?
  • I have spoken to neither they/them nor Anita.
Note

Object pronouns like me in a compound subject are acceptable in informal usage. For a more in-depth discussion, see this article on which pronouns to use in compound subjects.

Caution

Avoid hypercorrection. Some people use I instead of me in the object position because they have heard that “you and I” is correct, not “you and me.” “You and I” is indeed correct, but only when it is the subject of a sentence, not when it is the object.

Example
  • Poor: These tickets are for you and I.
    Better: These tickets are for you and me.

While I instead of me is acceptable in speech, using “I” in the object position is still avoided in formal writing.

Singular or plural?

When or or nor joins two parts of a subject, the verb that follows should agree with the part 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.

Admittedly, subject-verb agreement can sound odd in such sentences. You can always rephrase.

Examples
  • You aren’t to blame, and neither am I.
  • Either the tourists have the tickets, or the guide does.

Read more in this article on verb agreement with compound subjects.

Examples from literature

Here are some usage examples of either-or and neither-nor from the writings of famous authors. Note how they write with parallel structure: or and nor join grammatically balanced elements.

Examples
  • The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and 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 – for you will not get it, any more than I shall get it of you: which I do not at all anticipate.
    Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (1847)
  • I found it strange that neither I nor the day seemed in a mourning mood and I felt even annoyed at discovering in myself a sensation of freedom as if I’d been freed from something by his death.
    James Joyce, “The Sisters,” Dubliners (1914)
  • 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)

Quick Quiz

Which is preferred in formal writing?
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Which is/are correct?
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Which is correct?
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Which is better style?
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Which is correct?
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Which is correct?
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Did You Know?

Both constructions—“the government is” and “the government are”—are correct.
Know more:The Team Is or Are? Are Collective Nouns Singular or Plural?