Left or Right? Either Will Do

Have you ever had to decide between two options that looked equally good (or equally bad)? It’s like being in a Choose Your Own Adventure book, where the page number you pick can lead to either the villain’s defeat or your own death. (And it’s always death by quicksand, or alligators, or something similarly dreadful.)

Fork in the road

But both of the paths looked so inviting…
Image Credit: P L Chadwick. Source: Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 2.0

It can be just as hard to write a sentence that describes two equal things or ideas. Luckily, there are some handy connecting words that can help you pull everything together. These words are called correlative conjunctions.

Correlative conjunctions always come in pairs, so they are easy to spot (unlike those sneaky alligators). Examples of these conjunctions are

both….and

not only…but also

whether…or

either…or

neither…nor

The tricky part is figuring out where to put these words in your sentence.

Since correlative conjunctions connect two equal items, both of these items should have a parallel grammatical structure. This is easy to miss when you are in the middle of writing. Let’s create our own adventure to see how correlative conjunctions can help you to balance your sentences.

Choose Your Own Adventure: Magic or Mayhem

Both Jadeira and Karlon despised the evil Queen.

[Our adventurers, Jadeira and Karlon, are both proper nouns. So the two of them are grammatically parallel.]

The Queen was not only a vile sorceress, but also a grasping tyrant.

[Both a vile sorceress and a grasping tyrant have the same structure—article (a) / adjective (vile, grasping) / noun (sorceress, tyrant). So the two items are parallel. But look at what would happen if we wrote this sentence differently…]

The Queen not only was a vile sorceress, but also a grasping tyrant. ✕

[In this case, the first item starts with a verb (was) and the second item starts with an article (a). So we know we’re in trouble, and we haven’t even seen any alligators yet!]

The two companions debated whether to take the left path towards the town (and obtain reinforcements) or take the right path towards the Queen’s lair (and confront the Queen immediately). 

[This is a long sentence, and could definitely use some editing. But it is grammatically parallel. You can see that whether works a bit differently from the other correlative conjunctions. The parallel items don’t always follow directly after the word whether. In this case, the parallel items are following the infinitive to.]

As a result of their choice, they would either achieve a stunning victory or suffer a gruesome and bitter defeat.

[Grammatical parallelism does not mean that everything has to be identical. Both of the items above start with a verb (achieve, suffer) and are followed by a noun phrase. As long as the pattern of each item is similar, you are on the right path.]

Neither Jadeira nor Karlon could decide on the best course of action.

[In sentences like these, we use neither/nor rather than either/or. This is because we are replacing the negative word not: “Jadeira and Karlon could not decide.”]

Jadeira looked at Karlon. “You still have that silver coin?”

Karlon pulled the coin from his pocket, preparing to flip it.

Both adventurers were so focused on the coin that they did not see the giant alligators lurking in the water…

If you agree that Jadeira and Karlon should be eaten by the giant alligators, turn to page 32.

If you would rather get eaten by alligators than suffer through another grammar lesson, then you are on the wrong page. Go to another blog, and enjoy!

If you have thoughts to share about this grammar lesson, go to the bottom of this page. Make a comment.

THE END

(P.S. This post is dedicated to Nicole de Courval, who suggested that I write about either and neither. If you have a topic idea for a post, please contact me. I love writing about thorny grammar challenges!)

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10 thoughts on “Left or Right? Either Will Do

  1. As a result of my choice….I would either have another grammar lesson or a fantasy story? Not only will I have learned but also had a great time! (I tried…will practice more) Thanks Sue! May the spirits of inspiration keep sending you good waves!

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  2. Useful topic! Thanks to Nicole for suggesting it 🙂

    Question: In the example: “The two companions debated whether to take the left path towards the town (and obtain reinforcements) or take the right path towards the Queen’s lair (and confront the Queen immediately)”, is it more correct to say “…or to take the right path…”? I find it sounds more complete that way and also helps me ensure I have the same types of elements on either side of the ‘or’.

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    1. Hi TL, this is a fantastic question! This depends on who you ask. According to Cambridge University (there’s a link to the site in my blog post) it is acceptable to drop the second “to” when the two parallel items in the sentence are related to the main subject. In my post, Jadeira and Karlon are the subjects of the sentence, and they are the ones who would take the path either to town or to the Queen’s lair. This is why I left it as “or take the right path.” Grammar advice sources that discuss “whether” sentences sometimes follow this pattern in their sentence examples. (A lot of articles ignore “whether,” though, probably because it’s not as easy to explain as “either” and “neither.”)

      However, other grammar sources and sites (like Grammar: The Easy Way by Dan Mulvey) prefer that you use “to” at the beginning of both items, because then the two items are both infinitive phrases (they both start with the infinitive form of a verb, like “to take”). So you are absolutely right when you put “to” in both places. In fact, your sentence is likely better than mine. 🙂

      My main point about “whether” is that it has more flexibility in placement than the other conjunctions. It is okay, for example, to say, “We needed to decide whether we would have chicken or fish for dinner.” In this case, the parallel items are chicken and fish. The “or” is very far away from “whether.” And that’s just fine.

      My advice: Strive for parallelism and see if your sentence sounds right to you. Grammar guidance changes over time, and sometimes you just have to go with your gut. 🙂

      Thanks for reading!

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    1. Yes, that photo is great! I can’t take the credit for it, but it’s beautiful. It was taken as part of a geographical survey in the UK. As soon as I saw it, I really wanted to be out in a forest somewhere. 🙂

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  3. Love your easy to digest grammar lessons, Sue. I find I’m always tucking them away in one of my ‘go to’ files for when I’m stumped or need some professional guidance.
    Cheers to you!

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