How to Use the Conjunction "Nor"

How do you use the conjunction nor and why is it so special it deserves a podcast of its own? Neal Whitman of the Literal Minded blog explains. 

Neal Whitman, Writing for
5-minute read
Episode #429


In a recent episode on coordinating conjunctions, I talked about the popular mnemonic word FANBOYS to remember them: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. I also talked about how the conjunctions for, so, and yet are different from the better-known conjunctions and, but, and or. But I didn’t talk about nor, because it’s unusual enough to deserve an episode of its own. Well, this is that episode! We’ll be talking about negative conjunctions, and what they can tell us about parts of speech in general.

What Makes Something a Coordinating Conjunction

As I said in the earlier episode about coordinating conjunctions, or coordinators for short, one of their two main properties is that they can connect words or phrases of the same category to create a larger phrase of that same category. The other is that the coordinator has to come between the words or phrases it connects.

Nor Is a Coordinating Conjunction that Has Limits

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Nor has those two properties, so it’s definitely a coordinator, but it is severely limited in the kinds of words or phrases it can connect.  It’s a lot like for and so, which in American English, can join only clauses. Even then, a condition has to be satisfied: The first clause has to be a negative clause. For example, you could say,

“Fenster doesn’t like to do his homework. Nor does he check his answers when he does do it.”

The verb in the first clause is negative: doesnt like. The negation can also be implied. Let’s change our example to

“Fenster turned in his math worksheet two days late. Nor did he check his answers before turning it in.”

Now the verb in the first clause is positive: turned in his math worksheet two days late. Even so, there’s an implied negation: “not on time.”

The First Clause Must Be Negative for You to Use Nor Later

If you try to use nor to join two clauses when there’s nothing negative about the first one at all, it sounds bad. To illustrate, let’s adjust our example one more time:

“Fenster completed his math worksheet and turned it in right on time. Nor did he check his answers before he turned it in.”

What? That doesn’t make sense!

Nor Makes You Reverse the Verb Order

In listening to these examples, you may have noticed another wrinkle in how we use nor: We have to reverse the order of the subject and the auxiliary verb in the second clause. We don’t say “Nor he checked his answers before he turned it in”; it has to be “Nor did he check his answers.”

This isn’t unique to the coordinator nor; it happens any time we begin a clause with a negation or negative-like word or phrase; for example, Never does he check his answers, or Rarely does he check his answers, or Only when reminded does he check his answers.

However, other than the requirement of a negative first clause, and flip-flopping the subject and auxiliary verb in the second clause, can we sum up by saying that nor is like for and so, because the only things it can join are clauses? Well, not quite.

Or Versus Nor

For many speakers and writers, nor can also join other kinds of phrases if they’re inside a negated phrase. For example, take the idiom I havent seen hide nor hair of him. It means I haven’t had even a glimpse of someone. Now for me, this phrasing is a bit odd; I would want to say I havent seen hide or hair of him. Similarly, for many speakers, a sentence like Aunt Margaret was never hateful nor mean is completely normal, but for me, it would have to be Aunt Margaret was never hateful or mean.

Using or instead of nor in these situations reminds me of a rule from classical logic and computer science called DeMorgan’s Law. If you’ve studied logic or computer science, you’ll know immediately what I mean, but you haven’t, that’s OK. The main point is that the phrasing never hateful or mean mirrors classical logic more closely than never hateful nor mean. But as you probably know if you’re listening to this podcast, no natural language is completely logical, not English nor any other. So what do the usage guides have to say about nor instead of or to join items inside a negated phrase?

Archaic Language Calls for Nor

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage cites two usage guides published more than 100 years apart, each giving different advice. The older one, published in 1881, calls for nor, while the newer one, published in 1982, calls for or. Their conclusion is that or must have sometimes been used like this in the late 1800s—or else why would a usage guide have had anything to say about it?—and “that it has become prevalent in the century since” (661). Garners Modern American Usage says that or is usually the better choice, though he doesn’t call nor nonstandard.

He Speaks Not Versus He Does Not Speak

The most interesting advice I found was in Fowlers Modern English Usage, originally published in 1926. Fowler makes an interesting distinction. He talks about a period of English when the present-day system of negating verbs hadn’t completely settled, so that instead of saying that someone “doesn’t speak,” you could also say that they “speak not.”

Fowler calls for nor when you’re using this now-archaic style and want to join two negated verbs. For his example, he negates both verbs in the sentence He moves and speaks like this: He moves not, nor speaks. It’s only when you’re using the now-standard negation with an auxiliary verb, according to Fowler, that you should use or instead of nor. So in the more-modern phrasing, He moves not, nor speaks would be He does not move or speak. Fowler’s reasoning is that the not attaches to the auxiliary does, and therefore applies to both verbs in the same way as the auxiliary verb does.

How to Use Neither . . . Nor

Of course, nor is perfectly standard when it’s part of the correlative conjunction pair neither nor. Then it can join just about anything. So when Severus Snape tells Harry Potter, “You are neither special nor important,” using neither nor to join two adjectives is fine. However, if Snape had said, “You are not special nor important,” that would be a bit old-fashioned. The more modern way would be, “You are not special or important.”

How Not Can Be a Coordinating Conjunction

While we’re on the subject of negative coordinators, here’s a coordinator that gets completely left out of the FANBOYS mnemonic: not. Traditional grammars classify not as an adverb, which it certainly is in phrases such as did not check his answers. But it acts a lot more like a coordinator in sentences like We want jobs, not handouts! and Do it later, not now. It’s joining two items, in these examples nouns and adverbs, and comes between them instead of somewhere else.

This exclusion shows once again that parts of speech are not always clear cut, especially for function words like conjunctions, prepositions, and determiners. Mnemonics such as FANBOYS can help you memorize the most common members of some set, but don’t take them as the final word on what’s in and what’s out. Not every member these lists include is universally agreed on, nor do they capture every possible member of a set.



About the Author

Neal Whitman, Writing for Grammar Girl

Neal Whitman PhD is an independent writer and consultant specializing in language and grammar and a member of the Reynoldsburg, Ohio, school board. You can search for him by name on Facebook, or find him on Twitter as @literalminded and on his blog at literalminded.wordpress.com.