[And W. H. Fowler]

Subject Neither/Nor

Can I use "neither/nor" with three items in a list?

For example, NEITHER John NOR Lisa NOR Mary are coming with us.

--- Andy Piantanida

§     §     §

Dear Andy:

Let your guide be the rich, opinionated, eccentric, and always heartfelt A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H. W. Fowler. Avoid later editions ... after, say, 1955. They've been tampered with. My faded, worn and much abused volume is from the Oxford University Press dated 1944.

Under NEITHER, 2 Fowler says, "The proper sense of the pronoun (or the adjective) is "not the one nor the other of the two." Of the two.

This restriction does not hold [he continues] for the adverb (Neither fish nor flesh nor fowl). One can sense here a reverence --- as most of us have had or should have --- for the rhythm, spaciousness and measure of the King James Version of The Bible.

He tells us in a later paragraph that our job is to communicate with the reader. Change a sentence that would lead us to contradict the rules ... and lose clarity:

    If both subjects are singular & in the third person, the only need is to remember that the verb must be singular & not plural. This is often forgotten...

He goes on to show examples where both Johnson and Ruskin erred, and then offers this: "Complications occur when, owing to a difference in number or person between the subject of the neither member & that of the nor member, the same verbform or pronoun or possessive adjective does not fit both."

In writing, "the wise man," he concludes,

    evades these problems by rejecting all the alternatives --- any of which may set up friction between him & his reader --- & putting the thing in some other shape. In speaking [he goes on], which does not allow time for paraphrase, he takes risks with equanimity & says what instinct dictates.

But, he concludes, "as instinct is directed largely by habit, it is well to eschew habitually the clearly wrong forms."

Thus, we would suppose, Fowler would advise you to eschew the troublesome "Neither John nor Lisa nor Mary are coming with us;" & instead phrase it, "John, Lisa, and Mary are not coming with us."

Our proofreader added the following comments:

"Neither fish nor flesh nor fowl" ... (these are not adverbs; they're nouns, just like the inquiry). The letterwriter's original example should be "Neither John nor Lisa nor Mary is coming with us."

You're right that a string of nors seems awkward, although in this day of "informal" (read illiterate) writing few would object. I think "either ... or" and "neither ... nor" being strictly for choices between two alternatives is a holdover from a more classical, rational, black-and-white universe. Boolean algebra has liberated us!

Your example is grammatically correct: "John, Lisa and Mary are not coming with us." The question then remains: Does this sentence eliminate the possibility that although the group is not going, one member (or two) might go? It seems to me that only "neither ... nor" checks off each one of the group. FWIW.)

--- Ed
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