By Bonnie Mills, Quick and Dirty Tips
Everybody knows that neither and nor are bosom buddies. They require balance. A nor usually follows a neither when they're used in the same sentence (1). For example, you might say, “I like neither hot dogs nor mustard.” You may also use nor if you’re talking about more than two items, but you must repeat nor after each element (2). So if you want to add ketchup to your list of dislikes, you have to say, “I like neither hot dogs nor mustard nor ketchup.” It would be incorrect to use an or anywhere in that sentence—or to leave out either case of nor.
Neither can appear at the beginning of a sentence as well as the middle. For example, “Neither the man nor the woman is a good surfer” is nice and balanced.
The issue gets a little complicated when the two items in the neither-nor part of the sentence are a mix of singular and plural. If you changed the sentence to discuss the surfing skills of two men and one woman (one plural, one singular), what would you do? Writer Patricia O'Connor (3) calls this “a two-headed creature,” but luckily for us, it’s not as complicated as it seems. Simply take the noun closest to the verb and ensure they agree. So “Neither the men nor the woman is a good surfer” is correct, as is “Neither the woman nor the men are good surfers.” Note how we use the plural word surfers at the end there to keep everything in agreement.
Nor doesn’t necessarily have to appear in a sentence with the word neither. Nor can start a sentence. For example, if you’ve just mentioned that you don’t usually wake up at 6 a.m. and you want to continue being negative, you can start another sentence with nor: “Nor do I like to wake up at 5 a.m.” Another option is to combine the two negative ideas into one sentence and then start the second part with nor: “I don’t usually wake up at 6 a.m., nor do I like to wake up at 5 a.m.”
When to Use Or Instead of Nor
In all our examples so far, we’ve used nor to indicate a negative state that continues after something else negative happens. However, when the second negative item is a noun, adjective, or adverb phrase (4), you should use or to continue the negative thought because, according to lawyer and lexicographer Bryan Garner, “the initial negative carries through to all the enumerated elements” (5). For example, when you use the word not, the structure “not A or B” is correct. You’d have to say, “He is not interested in math or science”; “He is not interested in math nor science” won’t work. Likewise, “She didn’t speak slowly or clearly” has a better ring to it than “She didn’t speak slowly nor clearly.”
When to Use Either Nor or Or
If, on the other hand, the second part of the negative is a verb phrase—not a verb clause—then you can choose to use nor or or (6). Both of the following sentences will work: “Santa will not permit naughty behavior or even consider bringing presents.” “Santa will not permit naughty behavior nor even consider bringing presents.” You as the writer get to decide which one sounds better. If you’re unsure which word to use, or if you want to avoid the problem, you can try saying “and no” for the second part of the negative (7): “I have no time and no money.” The phrase “and not” will also work: “Santa will not permit naughty behavior and will not even consider bringing presents.”
You do need to be careful about keeping your neither and nor parallel (8). For example, it would be wrong to write, “He will study neither his lesson nor do his chores.” The part that follows neither is a noun (“his lessons”), and the part that follows nor is a verb phrase (“do his chores”). You want those two parts to match. You can fix it by moving the neither so it comes before the word study. Then both parts are verb phrases: neither study his lessons, nor do his chores.
To summarize, nor often pairs up with neither, but not always. When it comes to other negative words, use or if the second part of the negative is a noun, adjective, or adverb phrase. If it’s a verb phrase, choose either nor or or. If you’re unsure which one to use, consider saying, and no or and not for the second part.
1. American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, p. 320.
2. Walsh, B. Lapsing Into a Comma: A Curmudgeon’s Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print—and How to Avoid Them. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 2000, pp. 174-6.
3. O’Conner, P. Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996, pp. 52-3.
4. American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, p. 320.
5. Garner, B. Garner's Modern American Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, pp. 553-4.
6. American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, p. 320.
7. Garner, B. Garner's Modern American Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 554.
8. Walsh, B. Lapsing Into a Comma: A Curmudgeon’s Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print—and How to Avoid Them. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 2000, pp. 174-6.
About the Author
Bonnie Mills has been a copyeditor since 1996.