Neither you nor I set the “rules” of English; we do it together, by using words in certain ways. But we do learn certain “rules,” and we can either remember them, forget them, or ignore them.

For example, most of us learned that “neither” and “nor” were a pair, like Lucy and Ricky, or peanut butter and jelly. They are used to indicate a negative about two things: “I have neither peanut butter nor jelly.”

But just as Lucy and Ricky split, and peanut butter found chocolate, so “neither” and “nor” can be rent asunder.

But isn’t it wrong to say “I have neither peanut butter or jelly”?

Maybe yes, and maybe no.

The authorities disagree on how strict the “neither/nor” rule is. Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogarty, says you must use it, and often: “I like neither hot dogs nor mustard nor ketchup.” Just as you need a “nor” before each of the things you don’t have, she says, “it would be incorrect to use an ‘or’ anywhere in that sentence.”

Garner’s Modern American Usage says that “neither…or” is “either a serious grammatical lapse or a serious typographical error.” Yet that usage is at Stage 2 of Garner’s five-stage Language-Change Index, meaning the needle has moved from “absolutely never” to “well, you really shouldn’t.” Once that needle starts moving, it’s probably only a matter of time before using “or” will be neither wrong or ridiculed.

Merriam-Webster is less absolutist: “Although use with or is neither archaic nor wrong, neither is usually followed by nor.” The American Heritage Dictionary says “nor” is “standard usage.”

For now, at least.

But when that negative statement begins with “not” instead of “neither,” nearly everyone agrees that it should be followed by “or,” not “nor”: “I have not peanut butter or jelly.”

Now, can “neither” and “either” be used to refer to more than two things, as we’ve done several times? Same answer: Maybe yes, and maybe no.

Those dueling authorities again: Grammar Girl, as above, says yes; Garner’s says no. American Heritage says, “To refer to ‘none of several,’ none is preferred.” But let’s let Merriam-Webster have the last word here: “Reference to more than two has been quite common since the 17th century.” (To sticklers, of course, just because it’s “common” doesn’t mean it’s “right.”)

And as for using “either” to mean “both,” as in “we have bushes on either side of our fence,” you guessed it: Garner’s says it’s perfectly idiomatic; American Heritage accepts it fully; but The Associated Press Stylebook says: “Use it to mean one or the other, not both.”

So let’s see if we have this right: “Neither” should be followed by “nor” in most uses, though it’s not totally wrong to use “or,” if you believe Merriam-Webster; but when you use the same sentence and just use “not” instead of “neither,” it must be “or,” never “nor.” You should not use “either” or “neither” to refer to more than two things, except when you can; and “either” meaning “both” is (in)correct on either side.

Is it any wonder people get confused?

Speaking of confusion, next week we’ll talk about what verbs to use in those “either/neither” constructions. It’s either very easy or it’s not.

If you'd like to help CJR and win a chance at one of 10 free print subscriptions, take a brief survey for us here.

 

More in Language Corner

Small bites

Read More »

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.