Breaking up the correlative conjunction pair neither…nor is somehow a bit trickier than separating the parts of other correlative pairs. For example, one set of correlative conjunctions is not only…but also, and we use the words also, but, not, and only in isolation every day with no problem. Using neither and nor without their correlative mates, though, can throw some people for a loop. Nonetheless, neither neither nor nor is restricted to this single pairing.
Neither and Nor Together
The n at the beginning of both neither and nor turns either and or negative, as if they were shorthand for not either and not or. But that “shorthand” consideration gets us only so far. When the two words are working together, the nor, instead of creating a double negative, carries over the negative created by neither.
Generally, neither…nor — like either…or — should be used only with two items, though you can use them with more items for emphasis, as in the unofficial postal service creed inscribed on the James Farley Post Office in New York City:
Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.
Like so many elements of English grammar, native English speakers understand (more or less) how this pair works together both from our education and from having heard and spoken the language for so many years.
But neither and nor have become so bound together in some people’s minds that sentences that use one but not the other seem somehow wrong. This is more true for a solitary nor than a lonely neither.
But, of course, the words can be used separately.
Those who learned the mnemonic FANBOYS will remember that the N is a reminder that nor is also a coordinating conjunction, meaning it joins sentence parts that are grammatically equal. Nor as a coordinating conjunction can link clauses but, unlike and, not individual words. As a coordinating conjunction, nor acts just like it does with neither, carrying over a negative from a previous clause.
Consider this statement from my own post of two weeks ago:
The AP Stylebook doesn’t change our language, nor does it dictate how we can use our language.
The nor carries over the negative from the doesn’t in the first clause. Notice, though, that the clause that follows nor is inverted: “nor does it,” as opposed to “nor it does.”
One glory of the English language the way the same thing can be said in multiple ways, all of them equally valid. Examples:
Compound sentence without nor: The AP Stylebook doesn’t change our language, and it doesn’t dictate how we can use our language.
Simple sentence with compound predicate: The AP Stylebook neither changes our language nor dictates how we can use our language.
Brusquely: The AP Stylebook? Whatevs.
This is where it gets a little weird. In cases where nor is used as a coordinating conjunction, it may be substituted with neither. Some writers have a tendency to do this:
“Nature never wears a mean appearance. Neither does the wisest man extort her secret, and lose his curiosity by finding out all her perfection.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature”
“I don’t know this man from Adam; neither does this man know Tom.” —Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit
“If a man continually blusters . . . a big stick will not save him from trouble, and neither will speaking softly avail.” —Theodore Roosevelt, “National Duties”
If you change the boldfaced words in these examples to nor, the resulting sentences still make perfect sense. In speech, this sounds like a simple substitution, as if neither and nor are synonymous.
But the punctuation here reveals something else. The grammar books will tell you that, when neither is used this way, it is an adverb and not a conjunction. It therefore requires a full stop (as in the Emerson example), a semicolon (Dickens example), or a comma and coordinating conjunction (Roosevelt example). Why?
This is a tough question. I certainly can’t answer it.
Conjunctions are one area of contention among grammarians and linguists. Some, for example, think the FANBOYS mnemonic ought to be replaced with BANYO because a) they believe so really acts as a subordinating, not coordinating, conjunction; and b) for as a coordinating conjunction has been largely replaced by as and because, which, I might point out, are not coordinating conjunctions.
You may find fault with my own example, believing that the comma in the sentence, “The AP Stylebook doesn’t change our language, nor does it dictate how we can use our language.” ought to be a semicolon. You would have good arguments to make such a claim, just as I have good arguments for keeping the comma.
Thankfully, using our language to good effect is a lot easier than describing how or why our language works.