64. Double Conjunctions (“either … or …” etc)



English has a number of conjunction pairs like “either … or …”, but lacks some of the ones found in other languages



Conjunctions have already been much discussed within this blog in posts like 25. Conjunction Positioning37. Subordination: Grammar for Good Repetition, 40. Conjunctions versus Connectors and 61. “Since” versus “Because”Their main defining feature is their need to have a subject and verb after them that are not the only ones in the sentence. Here I wish to look at conjunctions that have a typical partner word placed before the other verb in the sentence, such as either … or … :

(a) EITHER the sun is sending out more heat OR the earth is losing less.

In many cases, conjunctions like this can drop one of the verbs because it is repetitive (see 36. Words Left Out to Avoid Repetition), leaving a list of the kind discussed in the post 54. Listing 1: Incidental:

(b) EITHER dollars (can be used for payment) OR pounds can be used for payment.

The main double conjunctions that can make a list like this are:


both … and … (simple list)

not only … but also … (simple list)

either … or … (two alternatives)

neither … nor … (list of negative meanings)

whether … or … (alternative questions or conditions)

on the one hand … and on the other … (contrasting ideas)


There are also some double conjunctions whose verbs are not usually left out, so that there is no association with listing:


if … then … (uncertain event/situation – consequence)

(just) as … so … (fact – similar fact)

no sooner … than … (event – immediate result)


In this post I wish to discuss some problems that double conjunctions can cause, and to highlight a combination that is not commonly mentioned.




1. Combinations that are logical but not used in English

Some languages allow combinations that are not usually found in English. A common one is *although … but … . In most cases English just uses although by itself, sometimes pairing it with yet or nevertheless for emphasis. The combination where(ever) … there … is similarly rare – it was probably commoner in the past than now. Modern English again often has the first word by itself, like this:

(c) WHERE the mountains are fertile, cultivation is heavy.

If there is some repetition in the second half, there is a tendency to add also or too:

(d) WHEREVER mosquitoes are found, malaria is found (exists) TOO.

Another prohibited combination is *since/because… hence/therefore … (see 61. “Since” versus “Because” for a comparison of these words). Again since or because by itself is sufficient.


2. Combinations that cannot begin a sentence

The combination both … and … can be used with either one or two verbs, like this (verbs underlined):

(e) BOTH cigarettes AND cigars are harmful to health.

(f) Cigarettes BOTH cost a great deal AND are harmful to health.

Only in (e), with the single verb are, is it possible to place both at the start of the sentence. When both has its own verb – cost in (f) – it must be placed directly before that verb, after the subject. One other combination that behaves like this is neither … nor … .


3. Combinations that generate special word order

An elementary rule states that English sentences usually have no verb directly before the subject unless a question is being asked. A more advanced rule is that sentences beginning with a negative also need a verb before their subject. Two of the combinations listed above are associated with this second rule: not only … but also … and no sooner … than … . Here is an example:

(g) NO SOONER had Caesar conquered the Britons THAN he needed to return to Rome. (not *… Caesar had … )

The neither … nor … combination is also negative, but, as stated above, it cannot start a sentence when neither has its own verb, so it cannot affect word order1. Also worthy of note is positioning with prepositions:

(h) Success is possible through EITHER hard work OR basic ability.

The preposition through goes with both of the linked nouns here (work and ability). We can place either before it or after it (though perhaps it reads better when placed before). The same freedom applies to both, not only and neither. However, it does not apply to whether. This word must go before a preposition unless the preposition is part of a “prepositional” verb like DEPEND ON (see 44. Troublesome Prepositional Verbs). Thus, in sentence (h) we would have to say whether through, not *through whether.


4. Variable Meanings of “whether/if … or …”

This combination – unusual in that it can only ever span part of a sentence – has at least three different uses: in indirect questions, as a kind of opposite of if, and as a substitute for either … or … . These uses are examined in detail in the post 99. When to Use “whether … or …” .



One combination is not commonly mentioned in grammar books: a negative equivalent of not only … but also … . Before looking at it, there is a need to analyse exactly what not only … but also … does. Consider again sentence (e):

(e) BOTH cigarettes AND cigars are harmful to health.

This statement is equally about cigarettes and cigars, saying something about each that the reader is assumed not to know already. The presence of both also gives advance warning that a list of two items is about to be given. However, if we replaced both … and … with not only … but also …, the sentence would be primarily about just cigars. It would mean “I know you know that cigarettes are harmful, but I am telling you that cigars are too”. In other words, it would be suggesting that the part after not only was already familiar to the reader, and hence was a kind of good repetition (see 24, Good and Bad Repetition).

The negative equivalent of both … and … is widely acknowledged to be neither … nor … . But what is the negative of of not only … but also … ? The possibility I wish to highlight is not … any more than … , like this:

(i) Governments do NOT often cut taxes, ANY MORE THAN they help the poor.

In this list of things that governments fail to do, the one assumed to be familiar to the reader is the second one, after any more than. We cannot usually put such familiar information first. Note also that other negative words than not are possible in the first half (hardly, rarely, scarcely, never, few, no, nobody, nothing etc). In (i), for example, we could replace do not often with rarely.



1Although neither combined with nor must go between a verb and its subject, nor can go before them both (verb first): Some people NEITHER want to eat healthily NOR will they take more exercise. The subject after nor in such cases is typically a pronoun (they), and can also be left out.

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