Either or neither?

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I haven’t done a pet peeves column for a while, at least not one about my own annoyances, so I thought I would write a bit about the current grammatical mosquito, of sorts, which has been pestering me of late: the misuse of “either” and “neither.”

I believe most readers already know the basics of using “either” and “neither. “Either” is used to signify that something is one or the other of two options. For example: “I will have either a sandwich or a salad for lunch.” “Either” can also be used to signify that something is both of two options: “You can find nice people on either side of the Mississippi.” “Neither” is used when something is, as my dictionary simply puts it, “not either” of two (or more) options. “Neither” is used in conjunction with “nor,” as in the famous (and unofficial) Postal Service Creed: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

To paraphrase simply: “Either” is used when something is at least one of the options presented, while “neither” is used when it is not.

Where I hear people go astray, however, is using these words in response to negative statements. For example, Person A might say, “I don’t like driving in snow,” to which Person B would respond, “Me neither.” Except Person B often replies, “Me either,” cueing angst and gnashing of teeth on my part. It is a small difference, to be sure, and certainly one that’s generally accepted in common speech (although I’ve heard wonderful tales that in England it isn’t). But grammar is nothing if not a cult of rules, and the rules here are clear: “either” is to be used when something is, “neither” is to be used when something is not.

Since Person A has already stated that she is not a fan of driving in the snow, for Person B to agree, he would have to also make a negative statement. His options are “neither” or “not … either,” which is the meaning “neither” was developed to convey. Some examples: “I’m not going to the parade today, and Jon is not either,” could just as easily be written, “I’m not going to the parade today, and neither is Jon.” You’ll notice that “neither” almost always comes before a linking verb like “is,” and “either” will almost always be found after it. You will also notice, I hope, that saying, “I’m not going to the parade today, and Jon is either,” does not make much sense. Although there are occasions when “either” and “neither” can be used interchangeably, it’s important to remember that “either” shouldn’t be used in the negative without an attached “not.” It’s just not a negative adjective. That’s what “neither” is for.

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