Correlative Conjunctions

Correlative Conjunctions

Correlative conjunctions are used in pairs to link equivalent elements in a sentence.

The most common ones are:
  • either...or
  • neither...nor
  • not only...but also
  • as…so
  • not…but

Easy Examples of Correlative Conjunctions

Remember, correlative conjunctions link equivalent elements.
  • Either go big or go home.
  • (The equivalent elements being linked are go big and go home. They are both verbs.)
  • It was neither big nor clever.
  • (The equivalent elements are big and clever. They are both adjectives.)
  • They stole not only the TV but also the satellite dish.
  • (The equivalent elements are the TV and the satellite dish. They are both nouns. Well, noun phrases to be precise.)
  • The light was not green but red.

Real-Life Examples of Correlative Conjunctions

  • Flowers are restful to look at. They have neither emotions nor conflicts. (Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud)
  • Education is not only the filling of a pail but also the lighting of a fire. (Irish poet William Butler Yeats)
  • It is not death but dying which is terrible. (Author Henry Fielding)

Why Should I Care about Correlative Conjunctions?

Correlative conjunctions are useful for keeping your writing succinct. They not only provide a succinct structure to say two things but also express how those two things relate to each other.

Generally, correlative conjunctions don't cause native English speakers too much grief, but there are four noteworthy issues associated with correlative conjunctions.

(1) Keep a parallel structure

Correlative conjunctions come in pairs. You must use the same type of word after each one in the pair.
  • Lee not only likes pies but also cakes. [wrong]
  • (Here, the first conjunction in the pair sits before a verb (likes), but the second sits before a noun (cakes). It's not parallel. It's untidy.)
  • He should either sell his watch or his car. [wrong]
  • (Here, the first conjunction sits before a verb (sell), but the second sits before a noun (his car). It's not parallel. Untidy.)
  • Lee likes not only pies but also cakes.
  • He should sell either his watch or his car.
  • (In these examples, the first and second conjunctions sit before nouns. Both examples now have parallel structures. Tidy.)
  • Lee not only likes pies but also likes cakes.
  • He should either pawn his watch or sell his car.
  • (In these examples, the first and second conjunctions sit before verbs. Parallel. Tidy.)
In truth, few people would describe a non-parallel structure with correlative conjunctions as a serious error, and you'd be very unlikely to create ambiguity if you committed that "crime". Nevertheless, try to use parallel terms because, firstly, parallel structures are easier to read and, secondly, you will feel some comfort knowing your sentence structure is sound.

(2) Don't use commas with correlative conjunctions. (Beware the exceptions!)

Sometimes, writers are unsure whether to use a comma with correlative conjunctions. This question arises most often with the pairing not only/but also. Here's the rule: Don't use commas with correlative conjunctions.
  • Lee likes not only pies, but also cakes. [wrong]
Unfortunately, it's a little bit more complicated than that. Here's the exception: If the second conjunction sits before an independent clause (i.e., words that could be a standalone sentence), then use a comma.
  • As a father has compassion on his children, so God has compassion on those who fear him. (Bible, Psalm 103:13)
It is rare for an independent clause to follow a correlative conjunction, but it does happen, especially with the pairing not only/but also.
  • Not only does Lee like pies, but he also likes cakes.
  • (Note that the subject of the independent clause (he) splits but also. This is necessary because the word but is playing two roles. We know it is part of the correlative conjunction not only/but also, but, in this sentence, it's also a coordinating conjunction. Remember, coordinating conjunctions (e.g., and, or, but) are used to join like elements. Here, it's joining two independent clauses.)
Also, be mindful that you might find yourself using a comma before a correlative conjunction because the comma is needed for another reason.
  • Lee likes not only pies, especially cheese and onion, but also cakes.
  • (Here, the commas are offsetting especially cheese and onion, which is just some additional information (called a parenthesis). So, the comma before but also has got nothing to do with correlative conjunctions.)

(3) Be careful with subject-verb agreement

When the pairing either/or or neither/nor features in the subject of a verb, the verb is singular if both elements are singular.
  • Neither the inspector nor the constable was available for comment.
  • (Both elements (the lorry and the van) are singular, so the verb (was) is singular; i.e., using were would be wrong.)
However, things get complicated if one of the elements is plural because there are two conventions:

Convention 1: The Proximity Rule. Under this convention, the element nearest the verb determines whether it's singular or plural.
  • Neither the inspector nor the constables were available for comment.
  • (The element nearest the verb (constables) is plural, so the verb (were) is plural.)
Convention 2: The Logic Rule. Under this convention, if any of the elements are plural, the verb is plural.
  • Neither the inspectors nor the constable were available for comment.
  • (Here, the first element (inspectors) is plural, so the verb is plural. This would be wrong using The Proximity Rule.)
So, should you use the Proximity Rule or the Logic Rule if one of your elements is plural? Well, both are common, so the quick answer is pick one and be consistent. But, there's a far better answer: satisfy both rules at once. If one of your elements is plural, deliberately put it nearest to the verb.
  • Either the budgies or the cat have to go.
  • (This is correct under the Logic Rule but wrong under the Proximity Rule.)
  • Either the car or the budgies have to go.
  • (Here, the plural element is nearest to the verb. This is now correct under both rules. Winner.)
This all applies to or by itself (i.e., without either).

(4) Don't forget that neither/nor plays a negative role.

Be aware that neither/nor plays a negative role in your sentence. Be careful not to use a double negative.
  • We did not discuss neither the flooding nor the landslide. [wrong]
  • (This is a double negative.)
Remember, two negatives make a positive. So, the example above means that the flooding and the landslide were discussed, which would not have been the intended meaning. Here are two better options:
  • We discussed neither the flooding nor the landslide.
  • We did not discuss either the flooding or the landslide.
Of course, two positives don't make a negative, but it can happen. Yeah, right.

Key Points

  • Position your correlative conjunctions in your sentence so the same type of word follows each one. In other words, use a parallel structure.
  • Don't use a comma with a correlative conjunction unless the words after it could be a standalone sentence (i.e., contain a subject, a verb and convey a complete idea).
  • Treat a subject that features either/or or neither/nor as singular if the elements after the conjunctions are singular. If one is plural, put it nearest to the verb and use a plural verb.
  • Don't use a negative verb with neither/nor otherwise you'll create a double negative.
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