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When to Use 'Nor'

How do you use 'nor' in a sentence? Does it always have to go with 'neither'?

By
Bonnie Mills, Writing for
5-minute read
The Quick And Dirty

If you're confused about how to use "nor," remember that "nor" often pairs up with "neither," but not always. When it comes to other negative words, use "or" if the second part of the negative is a noun, adjective, or adverb phrase. If it’s a verb phrase, choose either "nor" or "or." If you’re unsure which one to use, consider saying, "and no" or "and not" for the second part.

Updated April 7, 2021

Today we’re going to get a bit negative by looking at the various times you can use the word “nor.”

How to use 'nor' with 'neither' in a sentence

You may know that “neither” and “nor” are bosom buddies. They require balance. A “nor” usually follows a “neither” when they're used in the same sentence (1). For example, you might say:

I like neither hot dogs nor ketchup. 

You can also use “nor” if you’re talking about more than two items, but you have to repeat “nor” after each element (2). So if you want to add mustard to your list of dislikes, you have to say:

I like neither hot dogs nor ketchup nor mustard.

It would be wrong to use an “or” anywhere in that sentence—or to leave out either case of “nor.”

“Neither” can appear at the beginning of a sentence as well as the middle. For example, “Neither Squiggly nor Aardvark is a good gymnast” is nice and balanced, even if our beloved snail and aardvark are not so good with their balance.

The issue gets a little complicated when the two items in the “neither-nor” part of the sentence are a mix of singular and plural. If you changed the sentence to discuss the gymnastics skills of two men and one woman (one plural, one singular), what would you do? Writer Patricia O'Connor (3) calls this “a two-headed creature,” but luckily for us, it’s not as complicated as it seems. Simply take the noun closest to the verb and make sure they agree:

Neither the men nor the woman is a good gymnast.

Neither the woman nor the men are good gymnasts.

Notice how we use the plural word “gymnasts” at the end there to keep everything in agreement. It usually sounds better when you put the plural subject last and use a plural verb.

'Nor' without 'neither'

“Nor” doesn’t necessarily have to appear in a sentence with the word “neither.” “Nor” can start a sentence. For example, if you’ve just mentioned that you don’t usually wake up at 6 a.m. and you want to continue being negative, you can start another sentence with “nor”:

Nor do I like to wake up at 5 a.m.

Another option is to combine the two negative ideas into one sentence and then start the second part with “nor”:

I don’t usually wake up at 6 a.m., nor do I like to wake up at 5 a.m.

When to use 'or' instead of 'nor'

'Neither' and 'nor' are bosom buddies. They require balance.

In all our examples so far, we’ve used “nor” to indicate a negative state that continues after something else negative happens. However, when the second negative item is a noun, adjective, or adverb phrase (4), you should use “or” to continue the negative thought because, according to Bryan Garner, “the initial negative carries through to all the enumerated elements” (5). For example, when you use the word “not,” the structure “not A or B” is correct. You’d have to say:

He is not interested in confetti or sparkles.

“He is not interested in confetti nor sparkles,” won’t work. Likewise, “She didn’t speak slowly or clearly,” has a better ring to it than “She didn’t speak slowly nor clearly.”

When to use either 'nor' or 'or'

If, on the other hand, the second part of the negative is a verb phrase—not a verb clause—then you can choose to use “nor” or “or” (6). Both of the following sentences will work:

I will not eat chocolate cake for breakfast or even consider eating cheesecake for breakfast. 

I will not eat chocolate cake for breakfast nor even consider eating cheesecake for breakfast.

You, as the writer, get to decide which one sounds better (just as you, as the eater, get to decide what makes sense for breakfast). 

If you’re not sure which word to use, or if you want to avoid the problem, you can try saying, “and no” for the second part of the negative (7): “I have no time and no money.” The phrase “and not” will also work: 

I will not eat chocolate cake for breakfast and will not even consider eating cheesecake for breakfast. 

A warning about 'neither' and 'nor'

Finally, when you are using “neither” and “nor” together, you do need to be careful about keeping them parallel (8). For example, it would be wrong to write, “He will eat neither his oatmeal nor make a green smoothie.” The part that follows “neither” is a noun (“his oatmeal”), and the part that follows “nor” is a verb phrase (“make a green smoothie”). You want those two parts to match. You can fix it by moving the “neither” so it comes before the word “eat.” Then both parts are verb phrases: “neither eat his oatmeal,” “nor make a green smoothie.”

Web Bonus for Teachers

Which sentence is correct?
A) I want neither persimmons nor kiwis.
B) I want neither persimmons or kiwis.
[Answer: A]

Which sentence is correct?
A) I don't want persimmons nor kiwis.
B) I don't want persimmons or kiwis.
[Answer: B]

Which sentence is correct?
A) Neither the trees nor the flower inspires me.
B) Neither the trees nor the flower inspire me.
[Answer:A]

Which sentence is correct?
A) Squiggly didn't want to go to the library nor the principal's office.
B) Squiggly didn't want to go to the library or the principal's office.
[Answer: B]

Which sentence has parallel structure?
A) Aardvark neither wondered about the outcome nor cared.
B) Aardvark wondered neither about the outcome nor cared.
[Answer: A]

When to use nor infographic
 

References
1. American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, p. 320.
2. Walsh, B. Lapsing Into a Comma: A Curmudgeon’s Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print—and How to Avoid Them. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 2000, pp. 174-6.
3. O’Conner, P. Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996, pp. 52-3.
4. American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, p. 320.
5. Garner, B. Garner's Modern American Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, pp. 553-4.
6. American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, p. 320.
7. Garner, B. Garner's Modern American Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 554.
8. Walsh, B. Lapsing Into a Comma: A Curmudgeon’s Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print—and How to Avoid Them. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 2000, pp. 174-6.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
 

About the Author

Bonnie Mills, Writing for Grammar Girl

Bonnie Mills has been a copyeditor since 1996.