Difference Between Either and Neither
As an adjective:
“You may use either hand to grab it.”
“Neither cat is a tabby.”
In both cases, they modify the noun directly after it.
As a pronoun, they are used in similar ways, but without the noun.
“Either will do.”
“Neither liked the sound of that.”
So, in those cases, what is the difference? ‘Either’ is positive, while ‘neither’ is negative. That is, when you’re saying what something is, you use either. When you’re saying what it is not, then it’s negative.
“You may use either shovel.”
When the speaker says this, they are saying that you may use the shovels.
“You may use neither shovel.”
In this case, the speaker is saying that you may not use the shovels.
In recent years, ‘neither’ has fallen out of favor – ‘either’ is used a lot more often with ‘not’. In that case, the sentence above would look this:
“You may not use either shovel.”
Now, I mentioned above that the pair of words can also act as conjunctions. There, their functions are a little more different, because they change more of the sentence.
“You may either buy the computer game or go to the movies tomorrow.”
“Either you can wake up at 5 AM to feed the cat, or the cat will wake you up.”
Like before, ‘either’ is meant to say what you can do. Here, it is used in order to make a choice clear: you may do one or the other.
“You can neither get a tattoo nor do drugs.”
“Neither the orange cat nor the black one likes taking a bath, but the white one does.”
In this case, the speaker is telling you that of the things the sentence refers to, they either cannot be done or do not apply to something. In the latter sentence, the cats do not like taking baths, so the term ‘liking baths’ does not apply to them.
But if you look closely, you’ll see the other difference in the sentences: when ‘either’ is used in a sentence, the word ‘or’ is used. When ‘neither’ is used, then you use ‘nor’ instead.
‘Or’ and ‘nor’ are often paired with ‘either’ and ‘neither’, since they separate the choices that ‘either’ and ‘neither’ indicate. ‘Or’ is always used with ‘either’. ‘Nor’ should always be used with ‘neither’, but often native speakers don’t do it that way. The word ‘nor’ is falling out of favor in native English, even more than ‘neither’ has, because it is used even less than ‘neither’ is.
“Neither the parakeet nor the dog get along.”
While this is correct, a native speaker would probably use a different sentence structure for this thought:
“The parakeet and the dog don’t get along.”
This is also correct, and it is why ‘neither’ and ‘nor’ are used less often: it’s easier to say “they don’t” than “Neither this nor that do”. Still, ‘neither’ and ‘nor’ are still used in formal writing and when a writer wants to mimic older forms of English, so it’s still something you need to know.
The word ‘either’ can also be used as an adverb.
“If you don’t eat the vegetables, then you won’t have ice cream, either.”
In this case, it modifies a verb – the word ‘have – because it’s saying that you can only have ice cream if the condition – eating the vegetables – is met.
‘Neither’ cannot be used as an adverb in the same way in formal English, though it often pops up in regional dialect.
So, while both words show a choice and can be used as pronoun, conjunction, or adjective, one shows what is a choice and one shows what isn’t.
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