Neither-nor: Correlative Conjunctions

Over 30 years ago, I had a British boyfriend named Philip. He was sophisticated, well educated, and played classical music (beautifully) on his grand piano.

That alone would have been enough to blind me to his imperfections. But on top of all that greatness, his wife had died and he was raising their daughter Melanie on his own. In my eyes, he verged on sainthood, and I was in awe of him.

One day, Philip said something I have never forgotten:

Neither Melanie nor I watches much television.

Watches? Really? I would have put it this way:

Neither Melanie nor I watch much television.

Dead certain that Philip the Great couldn’t be wrong, I kept my preference for watch a secret, substituting alternatives such as these for neither-nor:

Melanie and I don’t watch much television.

I don’t watch much television; Melanie doesn’t, either.

I don’t watch much television and neither does Melanie.

And wouldn’t you know it?I was right all along! After all these years, I have finally learned that  according to the Chicago Manual of Style, compound subjects joined with either-or or neither-nor take the form of the verb that goes with the subject closest to the verb, in both number and person. Here are a few examples:

Neither Sarah nor Sam plans to attend the concert.

Either George or the twins are going to bring the sushi.

Neither Henry nor his sons have a Prius.

Neither the boys nor Henry has a Prius.

And (drumroll):

Neither Melanie nor I watch much television.

By the way, neithernor is a pair of correlative conjunctions. Like other correlative conjunctions (as-as, if-then, either-or, both-and, where-there, so-as, and not only-but also), neither and nor used together “join successive clauses that depend on each other to form a complete thought.” (Chicago Manual of Style.)

Cheers,

Tara Treasurefield

Tara’s Writing Studio

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About 123clear

I translate foggy information into plain English.
This entry was posted in conjunction, parts of speech, subject, verb, word usage. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Neither-nor: Correlative Conjunctions

  1. little sister says:

    Very cool, Tara. I likely will keep this post bookmarked and/or print several copies so that I, like you, will be correct!

    I wonder why, though, Philip never wondered out loud about why “Neither Melanie nor I watches television” sounds horrible and should have been checked for correctness.

    I know there are people who think we should have more to do, but being correct in both speech and writing is soooooo important to me that I won’t let certain things go. I’m very happy you didn’t let this one go (but I am glad that you let Philip go if the whole thing didn’t work for you both).

  2. 123clear says:

    Thank you for your kind (and very funny!) response, Dina.

    Cheers,
    Tara

  3. Ted Dorsey says:

    Hi Tara,

    I just found your page as I was searching the www for the definitive answer to just this question. I’ve heard your explanation before (and for awhile taught it to my students), that it’s the subject closest to the verb that determines the correct conjugation. That’s how I was taught.

    However, I’ve come across another explanation over the years, which is that if both subjects are singular, the verb will be singular, but if either of the two subjects are plural, the verb will be plural. Here’s another explanation of the same: http://hubpages.com/hub/Grammar_Mishaps__Neither-Nor_and_Either-Or

    According to THAT rule, the Prius sentences above should both use the verb conjugation “have” because Henry’s sons are plural. What do you think? I can hardly find consensus about this on the web.

    Now, I’m not sure that sheds much light on Philip’s sentence, in which both subjects are singular, but one is third-person and the other first-.

    Anyway, thanks for a lovely page. It’s fun to read.

    Ted

  4. 123clear says:

    Thank you for your comment, Ted.

    I went to
    http://hubpages.com/hub/Grammar_Mishaps__Neither-Nor_and_Either-Or, as you
    suggested. The explanation there certainly sounds reasonable to me. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

    I’m not surprised that you can’t find consensus about this on the web, though. Apparently, this is just one of many raging battles about grammar
    and usage, and the July 4 post to my blog, “Neither-nor and the Freedom of Choice,” offers yet another way to approach it.

    As for Philip’s famous sentence, I’m afraid I still haven’t put that one to rest. But I’m drawing closer to the real issue and expect to resolve it soon.

    Cheers,
    Tara

  5. Ted Dorsey says:

    Aha! I wish I’d read your July 4th post before I chipped in with my comments. For anyone else stumbling upon this page, make sure you do:
    https://writingtips.wordpress.com/2008/07/04/neither-nor-and-the-freedom-of-choice/

    I find the rules of grammar and their manipulation fascinating. If that makes me a nerd…so be it!

  6. mik leynes says:

    hello., since this is about correlative conjunctions. may i ask about another example? can i have a noun phrase with the correlative conjunction not “only-but also” as a subject of the sentence? and how would the verb agree? for example: not only the lawyer but also the doctor was/were aware. thanks a lot

  7. 123clear says:

    Mik,

    According to The Chicago Manual of Style, the singular verb would be correct:

    “Not only the lawyer, but also the doctor, was aware of Henrietta’s secret.”

    Use the plural form of the verb if you use “both-and,” another pair of correlative conjunctions:

    “Both the lawyer and the doctor were aware of Henrietta’s secret.”

    Cheers,
    Tara

  8. Heather says:

    How would you handle this sentence….?

    Either John or Sally will have to share (his/her???) office with the new recruit.

  9. 123clear says:

    Thank you for your inquiry, Heather.

    Here are two different ways to handle this type of dilemma:

    Either John or Sally will have to share an office with the new recruit.

    Either John or Sally will have to share their office with the new recruit. (in this case, the plural form is entirely acceptable.)

    I’ll write more about this soon in a post to my blog.

    Cheers,
    Tara

  10. mggrondin says:

    Hi Tara,

    Could I have the section number in the Chicago Manual of Style that states that rule? I’ve been looking for it and can’t seem to find it.

    Also, I’ve noticed in all the examples (here and in other Websites) that everybody avoids using the verb “to be.” Would you say “Neither Andy nor I is sick”, “Neither Andy nor I are sick”, or “Neither Andy nor I am sick.” The Chicago would seem to suggest the latter, but that doesn’t make sense, does it?

    Mel

  11. 123clear says:

    Mel,

    Thanks for your note. See Chicago 15th ed. sections 5.41 (3) and 5.182 for some guidance on how to handle it.

    This guidance from http://www.grammarBook.com is more directly applicable:

    Rule 3. When I is one of the two subjects connected by either/or or neither/nor, put it second and follow it with the singular verb am.
    Example: Neither she nor I am going to the festival.

    On the other hand, if you consider “Neither” as the subject of this sentence (and the sentence you sent in), then I would say the proper phrasing is “Neither she nor I is going to the festival.” Perhaps this was Philip’s guidance when he said, “Neither Melanie nor I watches much television.”

    Cheers,
    Tara

    Cheers,
    Tara

  12. Great idea, but will this work over the long run?

  13. Rakhi says:

    I wonder if it is too much to ask, but are you still with Philip the Great? More importantly, is he aware about the existence of this page?

  14. PRIYA says:

    Can you let me know if both the below usages are acceptable with neither nor.
    He knows neither English nor French
    He neither knows English nor French

    • 123clear says:

      “He knows neither English nor French” is correct. I wouldn’t use “He neither knows English nor French.”

      Tara

  15. namrata says:

    I did not reply. I did not raise my hand.
    Neither did I reply nor did I raise my hand
    I neither replied nor did I raise my hand.
    WHICH OPTION IS CORRECT

    • 123clear says:

      Many possibilities. I’d go with one of the following:

      • I did not reply. I did not raise my hand.
      • I neither replied nor raised my hand.

      Cheers,
      Tara

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