The English language is home to plenty of similar words and phrases. Desert and dessert. Stationery and stationary. Principle and principal. Word pairings like “either/or” and “neither/nor” sound like they could be interchangeable, but are they? When should a writer use one over the other? Don’t worry — it’s easier than you might think to tell them apart.
Right to Choose
The simplest way to differentiate between “either/or” and “neither/nor” is by understanding the connotations. One version means there is an option for one of two or more things, and there is a choice between them. The other version takes that choice away — none of the options are possible under the given circumstances.
“Either/or” implies possibility, and is the positive choice of the two. You can either go to the beach or go to the park. You can either have chocolate or vanilla ice cream. Maybe the options aren’t always so pleasant as ice cream, but at least there is a choice.
“Neither/nor” tells you that you get nothing. Maybe you have to go to work, so you can neither go to the beach nor go to the park. None of the alternative options are viable in this situation, and as much as you might wish you could skip work to go to the beach or the park, you need a paycheck.
“Neither/nor” isn’t exclusive to negation. It can also be inclusive of two or more things, or denote a blurry area between multiple options.
Example: Maybe there is a morally gray character in a book who is neither good nor bad. In this case, “neither/nor” means there’s a place in the middle. In this usage, “neither/nor” has broader implications than “either/or.”
No Remixes Allowed
The one thing a writer can’t do with “either/or” and “neither/nor” is change them into “either/nor” and “neither/or.” The original contexts don’t work together, and the negative and positive implications of each combination can’t be mixed.
Some writers might have the temptation to pair “neither” and “or,” so it doesn’t sound so formal. But it just doesn’t make grammatical sense. It may be better to change the structure and wording of the statement altogether.
One last writing tip: “Either” can be used without the accompanying “or,” but when it comes to “neither/nor,” one can’t be used without the other. In fact, “nor” is only acceptable when you use it with “neither,” although some might make an argument for “not/nor.” That falls under the umbrella of murky English grammar questions with no definitive answer.