How to Use Either, Neither, Or, and Nor Correctly

My mother seems to appreciate having a grammar lover in the family. For Christmas, one of the gifts she bought me was the book I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar. (By the way, it is equally correct to say “bad grammar.”) Last week, my mother emailed to ask if she was using the word “nor” correctly, which brings me to today’s post: the use of either, neither, and the connecting words that go with them.

Either/Or, Neither/Nor

First things first: Either is always paired with or, and neither is always paired with nor. If you are matching either and nor, I hate to break it to you, but you’re doing it wrong.

Additionally, nor is generally not used where neither is not also used. Got enough negatives in there for you? Here’s an example:

“I fear man nor beast!” Jay proclaimed as Frank stared at the python coiled on the branch over his head. (Wrong.)

“I fear neither man nor beast!” Jay proclaimed as Frank stared at the python coiled on the branch over his head. (Right!)

Correct Use of Either

Either is used when you are making a comparison between two ideas, and only one of the ideas will come to pass. Example:

“Well,” said Frank, “either you start fearing, or you are camping by yourself.”

I-Judge-You-When-You-Use-Poor-GrammarCorrect Use of Neither

Neither indicates that the two ideas are linked together. It’s kind of like a negative conjunction. But if you use neither, then make sure your sentence does not have any other negatives preceding it. If you prefer to use a negative, then you want to use either.

Jay had seen neither the snake nor the wasp’s nest on the next tree, and was preparing to stake his tarp in that less-than-safe location.

Jay had not seen either the snake or the wasp’s nest on the next tree, and was preparing to stake his tarp in that less-than-safe location.

Hopefully you will never see a stray nor again.

Need more grammar help? After you master “neither nor” and “either or” in the practice section below, check out our tutorial Grammar 101. You too can become the person your friends turn to for grammar advice.

PRACTICE

Tell us about a disastrous camping trip. Use either/or and neither/nor to establish how much your characters would rather be anywhere but the African savanna/Arctic tundra/Griswold family camping trip.

Write for fifteen minutes. Post your practice in the comments when you’re finished.

Thanks!

About Liz Bureman

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

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