Difference Between “Either/Or” and “Neither/Nor”

Hello everyone,

Have you ever been confused about when to use “either/or” and when to use “neither/nor”?

Don’t worry, you’re not alone! Many English speakers, both native and non-native, sometimes struggle with these phrases.

In this lesson, we’ll break down the differences between “either/or” and “neither/nor,” explain how to use them correctly and provide lots of examples to help you understand.

By the end of this lesson, you’ll feel much more confident using these expressions in your writing and speech.

What are “Either/Or” and “Neither/Nor”?

Let’s start with the basics. “Either/or” and “neither/nor” are both correlative conjunctions.

That’s just a fancy way of saying they’re pairs of words that work together to connect parts of a sentence.

They’re used to talk about choices or possibilities.

“Either/or” is used when you’re talking about a choice between two options or possibilities.

It suggests that one of the options is true or will happen.

“Neither/nor” is used when you’re talking about two options or possibilities, but you’re saying that both of them are not true or won’t happen.

The Meaning and Usage of “Either/Or”

“Either/or” is used when you have two choices or possibilities, and you’re saying that one of them is true or will happen.

It’s like saying, “It’s this one or that one, but not both.”

Here are some simple examples:

  • You can either have ice cream or cake for dessert.
  • Either John or Mary will pick up the kids from school.
  • We can go to the beach or the mountains for our vacation.

In these sentences, we’re presenting two options, and we’re saying that one of them (but not both) will be chosen or is true.

More topics:

The Meaning and Usage of “Neither/Nor”

“Neither/nor” is used when you have two choices or possibilities, but you’re saying that both of them are not true or won’t happen.

It’s like saying, “It’s not this one and it’s not that one either.”

Here are some simple examples:

  • Neither pizza nor pasta is on the menu tonight.
  • The package arrived neither early nor late; it was right on time.
  • Neither the red shirt nor the blue shirt fits me.

In these sentences, we’re presenting two options, but we’re saying that both of them are false or not applicable.

The Structure of Sentences with “Either/Or”

When using “either/or” in a sentence, there are a few important things to remember:

a) Placement of “Either”: “Either” usually comes before the first option. For example:

  • Either we can go to the movies or we can stay home.

b) Parallel Structure: The options that follow “either” and “or” should have the same grammatical structure.

For example:

  • Correct: You can either sing a song or tell a joke.
  • Incorrect: You can either sing a song or telling a joke.

c) Verb Agreement: When “either/or” is used with singular nouns, the verb should agree with the noun closer to it.

For example:

  • Either the cat or the dog is making that noise.
  • Either the dogs or the cat is making that noise.

The Structure of Sentences with “Neither/Nor”

When using “neither/nor” in a sentence, keep these points in mind:

a) Placement of “Neither”: “Neither” usually comes before the first option. For example:

  • Neither the book nor the movie was very interesting.

b) Parallel Structure: Like with “either/or,” the options that follow “neither” and “nor” should have the same grammatical structure.

For example:

  • Correct: He neither sings well nor dances gracefully.
  • Incorrect: He neither sings well nor is a good dancer.

c) Verb Agreement: With “neither/nor,” the verb usually agrees with the noun closer to it.

For example:

  • Neither the teachers nor the principal was aware of the problem.
  • Neither the principal nor the teachers were aware of the problem.

Common Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Even native English speakers sometimes make mistakes with “either/or” and “neither/nor.”

Here are some common errors and how to fix them:

a) Using “or” instead of “nor”:

  • Incorrect: Neither the cat or the dog wants to go outside.
  • Correct: Neither the cat nor the dog wants to go outside.

b) Forgetting parallel structure:

  • Incorrect: You can either go to the store or staying at home.
  • Correct: You can either go to the store or stay at home.

c) Using double negatives with “neither/nor”:

  • Incorrect: I don’t like neither apples nor oranges.
  • Correct: I like neither apples nor oranges.

d) Misplacing “either” or “neither”:

  • Incorrect: The movie either bored me or it excited me.
  • Correct: The movie either bored me or excited me.

When to Use “Either/Or” vs. “Neither/Nor”

Choosing between “either/or” and “neither/nor” depends on whether you’re talking about positive or negative options.

Use “either/or” when:

  • You’re presenting two positive options or possibilities.
  • You’re saying that one of the options is true or will happen.

For example:

  • We’ll either go to the park or visit the museum.
  • Either Sarah or Tom will win the competition.

Use “neither/nor” when:

  • You’re presenting two negative options or possibilities.
  • You’re saying that both options are false or won’t happen.

For example:

  • Neither the red car nor the blue car is available for rent.
  • The food was neither tasty nor nutritious.

“Either/Or” and “Neither/Nor” in Questions

These phrases can also be used in questions.

Here’s how:

“Either/Or” in questions:

  • Will you either stay home or go out tonight?
  • Is the package either at the post office or at your neighbor’s house?

“Neither/Nor” in questions:

  • Is neither option appealing to you?
  • Were neither the book nor the movie enjoyable?

Using “Either” and “Neither” Alone

Sometimes, you might see “either” or “neither” used without their partners “or” and “nor.”

This is perfectly okay, and it’s good to know how they work in these cases.

“Either” used alone: When used alone, “either” often means “also” or “too,” but in a negative context.

For example:

  • I don’t like coffee, and I don’t like tea either.
  • If you’re not going to the party, I won’t go either.

“Neither” used alone: When used alone, “neither” means “not one or the other.”

For example:

  • Do you prefer chocolate or vanilla? Neither. I like strawberry.
  • Which dress do you like better? Neither. They’re both ugly.

“Either/Or” and “Neither/Nor” in Longer Lists

While “either/or” and “neither/nor” are typically used with two options, they can sometimes be used with longer lists.

However, only the last two items in the list are connected by “or” or “nor.”

For example:

  • You can either go to the beach, visit the museum, or stay at home.
  • Neither the cat, the dog, nor the bird wants to play.

Informal Usage and Variations

In informal speech or writing, you might hear some variations of these phrases:

“Or” used instead of “either/or”:

  • You can have cake or ice cream for dessert.

“Not…or” used instead of “neither/nor”:

  • I don’t like coffee or tea.

While these variations are common in casual conversation, it’s best to use the full “either/or” and “neither/nor” in formal writing or speech.

Practice Exercises

To help you get more comfortable with using “either/or” and “neither/nor,” here are some practice exercises:

Fill in the blanks with either “either/or” or “neither/nor”:

  1. _______ the blue shirt _______ the red shirt looks good on me.
  2. We can _______ go to the movies _______ stay home and watch TV.
  3. _______ the dog _______ the cat has been fed yet.
  4. You must _______ turn in your assignment today _______ accept a lower grade.
  5. The food was _______ hot _______ cold; it was just right.

(Answers: 1. Neither/nor, 2. Either/or, 3. Neither/nor, 4. Either/or, 5. Neither/nor)

Real-World Examples

To help you understand how these phrases are used in everyday life, here are some real-world examples:

In Literature:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness… it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…” – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

This famous opening uses a series of contrasts, similar to how we use “either/or” to present options.

In Politics:

“Neither a wise man nor a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

This quote uses “neither/nor” to emphasize that two types of people (wise and brave) would not do a certain action.

In Everyday Speech:

“I’m not sure if I should either apply for a new job or go back to school.” “Neither the early flight nor the late flight works for my schedule.”

Conclusion:

Knowing the difference between “either/or” and “neither/nor” can really help you get better at English.

“Either/or” is for positive choices when one option is true, while “neither/nor” is for negative situations when both options are false.

Try using these phrases in your daily talks and writing. It’s okay to make mistakes – that’s how we learn!

Keep practicing, and you’ll soon be using “either/or” and “neither/nor” like a pro, whether you’re a native English speaker or a learner.

_____________________

Check out these awesome grammar books I recommend:

High School English Gram & Comp – by WREN & MARTIN

English Grammar in Use Book with Answers: A Self-study Reference and Practice Book for Intermediate Learners of English

OXFORD ENGLISH GRAMMAR COURSE ADVANCED WITH KEY (WITH EBOOK)

English Grammar (Language Workbooks) 

English Grammar: The Basics: The Basics

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