"Both," "Either," and "Neither": What's the Difference?

A lot of learners know about the words "both," "either," and "neither" from English grammar lessons, but do not totally understand how they are different.

To help you better understand what they mean and how they're used, this blog post will cover how these words differ in their meaning, grammar, and levels of formality.

Differences in meaning

We use "both," "either," and "neither" when we talk about a set of two things.

“Both” means 2/2

We use the word "both" when there is a set of two things, and we want to refer to all of them.

For example, let's say someone asks you if you want a cat or a dog. That is a set of two options. If you want a cat and a dog, you can use the word "both."

Eve
Do you want a cat or a dog?
Beth
Both!

Here are some more example sentences to show you what "both" means.

Cheese and ice cream are both made of milk.
Cheese is made of milk. Ice cream is made of milk too.
Both of my parents read a lot.
My mother reads a lot. My father reads a lot too.
I like both tea and coffee.
I like tea. I like coffee too.

“Either” means 1/2

We use the word "either" when there is a set of two things, and we want to refer to any one of them. For example, if you want "either" a cat or a dog, you want a cat or you want a dog. Any option is fine.

Drew
Do you want a cat or a dog?
Max
Either. I like them equally.

Here are some more examples.

She wants to learn either French or Spanish.
She has two options (French and Spanish). She will pick one.
Either he doesn't know or he doesn't care.
There are two possibilities ("he doesn't know" and "he doesn't care"). One of them is correct.

“Neither” means 0/2

We use the word "neither" when there is a set of two things and we do not want to refer to either of those things. You can think of "neither" as "not either" or "not one or the other."

So if you do not want either a cat or a dog, you can say that you want "neither."

Dave
Do you want a cat or a dog?
Rose
Neither. I want a snake.

Here are some pictures to help you understand what "neither" means compared to "either."

Either

Neither

Here are some example sentences.

Neither of my parents watches TV.
My mother does not watch TV. My father also does not watch TV.
I neither smoke nor drink.
I do not smoke. I also do not drink.

“Either” can sometimes be replaced with “both”

Sometimes, "either" can be replaced with "both." For example, if someone asks you, "Do you want tea or coffee?" and you do not mind which one they give you, you could reply:

  • "Either is fine."
  • "Both are fine."

Both responses mean the same thing. Native English speakers just have different pictures in their mind when they say them.

"Both are fine."

"Either is fine."

For example, here are some sentences that mean the same thing.

BothEither
There are good restaurants on both sides of the street.There are good restaurants on either side of the street.
"Hello" and "Hi" mean the same thing. You can use either of them in conversation."Hello" and "Hi" mean the same thing. You can use both of them in conversation.

However, "either" and "both" are not interchangeable when "either" refers specifically to only one of two things. For example, let's say there are two people: Raj and Ann. Only Ann speaks Japanese. If you asked them:

  • "Do either of you speak Japanese?", the answer would be "yes," because one of them (Ann) speaks it.
  • "Do both of you speak Japanese?", the answer would be "no," because only one of them speaks it — not both.

Differences in grammar

"Both ... and," "either ... or," "neither ... nor"

The words "both," "neither," and "either" are used with different conjunctions.

  • I want both a dog and a cat.
  • I want either a dog or a cat.
  • I want neither a dog nor a cat.

In particular, pay attention to "neither ... nor." While you will hear native English speakers use "neither ... or," keep in mind that it is used in informal situations. In formal writing, it is better to use "neither" with "nor."

“Both” is normally used with positive verbs

If you want to say "both ... not," use "neither" instead.

I have two pets and neither of them are snakes.
Both of my pets are not snakes.
Neither of my children look like me.
Both of my children do not look like me.

If you want to say "not ... both," say "not ... either" instead.

I was invited to two parties, but could not go to either of them.
I was invited to two parties, but could not go to both of them.

“Either” and “neither” are used with singular nouns

The noun that follows "both" is always plural. However, the noun that comes after "either" and "neither" is singular.

For example, below are some possible responses to "Are you free to meet Monday or Tuesday?" Notice that the noun "day" is plural after "both" but singular after "either" and "neither."

BothEither and Neither
Both days work for me.Either day works for me.
Neither day works for me.

However, remember that when you use "either of" or "neither of," the noun is plural. That is because you are referring to the set of things and not just one member of the set.

  • Either of those days works for me.
  • Neither of those days works for me.

“Either” and “neither” are used with singular verbs in formal writing

In real life, native English speakers often use "either" and "neither" with both singular and plural verbs. For example, all of the sentences in the following chart sound natural, and most people will not notice whether you used the singular or plural verb.

"Neither of" + singular verb"Neither of" + plural verb
I have two cats and neither of them likes me.I have two cats and neither of them like me.
Does either of you speak Spanish?Do either of you speak Spanish?

However, when you are taking an English test or writing something formal (e.g. an academic paper), remember to use "neither of" and "either of" with singular verbs. This is considered more proper and correct.

Differences in formality

"Neither ... nor" can sound formal

Unlike "both ... and" and "either ... or," "neither ... nor" can sound formal. This is why you will rarely hear native English speakers using it in conversation.

Here are some ways to rephrase "neither ... nor" sentences so they sound more relaxed and informal.

FormalInformal
His shirt was neither black nor white.His shirt wasn't black or white.
I want neither a cat nor a dog.I don't want either a cat or a dog.
Neither Jake nor Jess speak Spanish.Jake doesn't speak Spanish and Jess doesn't either.
Jake doesn't speak Spanish and neither does Jess.

Your turn

Below are some sentences that can use "both," "either," or "neither." Try to fill in the blanks with the right word. To help you out, here's a chart that summarizes the differences.

Both2/2I want both a cat and a dog.
Either1/2I want either a cat or a dog.
Neither0/2I want neither a cat nor a dog.
  1. This novel is _____ interesting and easy to read.
  2. I hope ____ of you pass the exam.
  3. Does _____ of them know about the new changes?
  4. I have not met _____ of my neighbors.
  5. I _____ like nor hate cats.

For more practice, book a lesson with a professional English tutor using our grammar lessons on "neither," "either" and "both." Learn more about us here.