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.
We use "both," "either," and "neither" when we talk about a set of two things.
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."
Here are some more example sentences to show you what "both" means.
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.
Here are some more examples.
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."
Here are some pictures to help you understand what "neither" means compared to "either."
Here are some example sentences.
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:
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.
|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:
The words "both," "neither," and "either" are used with different conjunctions.
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."
If you want to say "both ... not," use "neither" instead.
If you want to say "not ... both," say "not ... either" instead.
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."
|Both||Either 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.
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.
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.
|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.
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.
|Both||2/2||I want both a cat and a dog.|
|Either||1/2||I want either a cat or a dog.|
|Neither||0/2||I want neither a cat nor a dog.|
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.