Q&A: How to use either and neither

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, neither hell nor high water stops us. Either that, or something else…

Q: Hi AWC, this week I’d like to know about the word “either” – can it be used for more than two items?
A: Good question. Two is recommended. However, we see it often used for lists of three or more (“For dessert you can choose either the mousse, the truffles or ice cream”), although it’s the sort of offence where the grammar police would let you off with a warning.

Q: So two options are definitely preferred… but more are not entirely wrong?
A: It depends on the level of the prescriptivist you speak to. We would say always stick with just two – although some dictionaries will acknowledge it does occasionally get used for more.

Q: Got any more fun facts?
A: Sure. So in this context, the word “either” is a conjunction that introduces a choice between two options, with the second option preceded by “or”. “Either” has a few other forms though – including as an adverb when used in the same way as “also” (“I didn’t like it either”). And it pops up as an adjective when talking about “each of two” in something like “The bookshop had empty buildings on either side”.

Q: Wow, it’s a busy word.
A: Yes, and that’s only scratching the surface.

Q: What about if I said “either writing course is great”?
A: That’s another form – in that case it’s used as a pronoun.

Q: Okay, so tell me about “neither”.
A: A-ha, well now that we’ve introduced “either” already, this should be fairly straightforward. In that original “choice between two” conjunctive form, it’s like a debate – “either” is for the affirmative, and “neither” is for the negative.

Q: I used to do debating at school. One week I had to argue that apostrophes should be banned.
A: Wow, how’d you get on?

Q: I cant quite remember, its been a while as Im sure youre aware. Id say we wouldntve won.
A: Hmmm. Anyway, back to “neither” – just as either/or is a combo, we see neither/nor teaming up here. So an example could be “Neither my first nor my second manuscript was published.”

Q: Sorry to hear that. Don’t give up.
A: It was an example.

Q: Sure, that’s cool. Whatever you need to tell yourself.
A: But– Never mind.

Q: So another thing – do you treat the two options as a singular or plural after you’ve listed the choices? This goes for “either” too by the way. For example, do you say “Neither John nor Mary was present” or “Neither John nor Mary were present”? The second one sounds better.
A: Ba-bow, thanks for playing. Incorrect. If both options are singular, then you’ll follow with the singular form – “Neither John nor Mary was present”. However if one of the options were plural, go for it. So it would be “Neither John nor the teachers were present.”

Q: Ahhh, okay, good to know. Sounds a bit clunky though.
A: You can always reword the sentence. After all, correct isn’t always easy on the eye.

Q: In that case, I’ve known plenty of “correct” people in my time. Great personalities though.
A: Haha, good to know. Many people get the plural/singular thing wrong – probably because informal speech tends to be quite loose in that area.

Q: I guess with writing there are less places to hide.
A: Precisely. And of course, just like “either”, the word “neither” gets used in a bunch of other contexts, e.g. “I’m not a published writer, and neither are you.”

Q: Still bitter about those manuscripts?
A: It was just an example.

Q: I believe you.
A: Either you do or you don’t. Not bothered.

Q: Me neither. See you next week!

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