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I want to be able to say something like:

There either needs to be X to do either Xa or Xb or there needs to be Y.

(edit: since from some answers it doesn't seen to be clear, I mean that that Xa and Xb would only happen under X, not Y. )

Is there any way I can make it less cumbersome or more clear which "either" the "or"s are associated with?

edit2

I think the word "do" is confusing things. Another way of phrasing it would be:

There either needs to be X which would either [have behaviour] Xa or [behaviour] Xb or there needs to be Y.

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In fact, there's another more serious problem with your sentence. Does Y do Xa or Xb? From the way you've written it, it's not entirely clear. My answer assumes that Y does not do Xa or Xb, but another answer assumes that it does. –  Pitarou Aug 16 '12 at 9:20
    
If Y did Xa and Xb I would have just put "A or B". The X prefix signifies that they only done by X. –  Sam Hasler Aug 16 '12 at 9:30
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I think the first either made your original sentence more ambiguoius; it could be interpreted as "There either needs to be X or Y to do either Xa or Xb." Removing the first either (and adding a comma) might have made it more clear: (There needs to be X to do either Xa or Xb, or there needs to be Y) but, even with that, there's still room for interpretation. –  J.R. Aug 16 '12 at 9:34
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if you say "or there needs to be Y" then that implies that Y allows Xa and Xb. Try using a concrete example so that your question is less ambiguous. –  Matt Эллен Aug 16 '12 at 9:36
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I like the way you worded it in edit2. You might put the "which" part in parentheses: There either needs to be X (which would either [have behaviour] Xa or [behaviour] Xb), or there needs to be Y. –  J.R. Aug 16 '12 at 10:23
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4 Answers 4

If you keep it exactly as it's written, it doesn't need fixing. All the *either*s and *or*s are close together, so it's easy to analyse the sentence at a single glance. (I'd prefer to put the either between be and X, but that doesn't change the meaning.) But if the Xs and Ys get longer, it could be hard to read. So your options are:

Option 1: Punctuate

There needs to be either X, to do either Xa or Xb, or Y.

There needs to be either X (to do either Xa or Xb) or Y.

Option 2: Reorder

Nested structures are generally more readable if you put the inner structure at the end of the outer one. So you could reword your sentence like this:

There needs to be either Y, or there needs to be X to do either Xa or Xb.

but, to be honest, it doesn't make a lot of difference.

Option 3: Break it up

There either needs to be X or Y. X would be to do either Xa or Xb.

Option 4: Substitute one of the either ... or structures

... but I can't think of an equivalent structure that doesn't use or and isn't long and unwieldy. I'm sure one of the other answerers will come up with something.

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I like options 2 and 3 because they work in writing and in speach. In option 2, you could probably drop the first "either". –  TecBrat Aug 16 '12 at 10:27
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I think the short answer is that as English as no clear way of indicating groupings and sub-groupings in a hierarchical structure, any such sentence has the potential to be confusing. In a computer language we could clearly say, "if condition1 then if condition2 then X1 else X2 endif else Y" or some such. But English isn't so precise. In a specific example it might be clear from context.

For example: "We'll either paint the walls, either blue or green, or we'll tear them down." I think it's pretty clear that tearing them down is not a color of paint, etc, so there's no ambiguity.

But, "We'll either paint the walls or we'll put on wallpaper, either blue or green." Do the colors refer to wallpaper or to both paint and wallpaper? Probably not to just paint or we wouldn't have put it at the end.

Or, "We'll either get someone from accounting to look at this, either Bob or Sally, or maybe we'll ask Joe for help." From the fact that there are two "either"'s, I'd think "ask Joe" is an alternative "get someone from accounting". But the fact that three people are named lures one into thinking that Bob, Sally, and Joe might all be "someone from accounting".

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  • There needs either to be X to do Xa or Xb, or else there needs to be Y.
  • There needs either to be X to do Xa or Xb, or else Y.

A comma helps, and careful phrasing. That way the either can more easily govern and guide the two separate halves of the disjunction. It also seems better to factor out the duplicated there needs to be.

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I like your first rewrite -- it's a good idea to use or else -- but not your second. Doesn't or else require a full clause? –  Pitarou Aug 20 '12 at 14:40
    
@Pitarou No, certainly ‘or else’ has no requirement of a full clause following it. –  tchrist Aug 20 '12 at 14:41
    
That second sentence still looks wrong to me. Is this a dialect difference? (I'm British.) –  Pitarou Aug 20 '12 at 14:43
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If this is just a question of expressing that idea clearly, I'd say it the other way. This and that produces X or Y.

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That's not what I was trying to express. I've edited the question. –  Sam Hasler Aug 16 '12 at 9:28
    
Events X and Y are mutually exclusive. When X occurs, it is caused by Xa and Xb occuring together. –  Chris Aug 16 '12 at 11:43
    
Xa and Xb are different options when doing X, e.g. "we could solve this by doing X (and X could use either Xa or Xb) or we could do Y." –  Sam Hasler Aug 16 '12 at 13:31
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