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I was checking out the definition of either in dictionary, here is what I found:

one or the other of two things (any of the things will be fine)

one and the other of two things (either side of the road)

so, the word "either" can basically mean both any or both, is that right?

Let's say I want to say:

Either of these options will do (any of the two options will do)

Can it also mean both of the options will do?

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It likely depends on what the options are (in other words, the context). If someone asked me, "I'm going to the deli; what should I get for you for lunch?" and I replied, "Either a ham and cheese, or a roast beef," that person could probably bring me back two sandwiches without violating any dictionary definitions or grammatical rules, but I doubt that's what I had in mind when I used the word "either." –  J.R. Dec 26 '12 at 13:20
    
    
Be a bit more lucid.Use more illustrations to dispel confusion.What's the meaning of 'either' in instance like 'You don't know him, do you?I don't either'. –  U.K.Pal Jun 19 at 7:13

2 Answers 2

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Yes, that’s right. In general, it turns out that sometimes either is distributive, essentially meaning both or all, and sometimes it is exclusionary and so applies to just one out of the set.

Your question is whether it would be understood to mean just one or if it would mean two in the sentence:

Either of these options will do.

The answer is that here it means that just one option suffices. It means “any single option”. If you have any doubts about how it will be received, you can always write any one option or some such.

For the most part, I think the “each one” or “both” sense applies to natural pairs. Here are some OED citations for the “both” kind of either:

  • 1762 Falconer Shipwr. Proem 40 ― The fierce extremes of either zone.
  • 1820 Scott Ivanhoe iii, ― There was a huge fireplace at either end of the hall.
  • 1842 Tennyson E. Morris 37 ― Either twilight and the day between.

Note that either meaning “both” is the oldest of the various senses the word has come to mean historically. It is somewhat uncommon these days, but by no means wholly obsolete.

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Either in your citations actually means 'each' not 'both'; otherwise you would have one fireplace in two locations. I haven't put this in an answer for fear of confusing OP; but the dictionary that gave 'both' was careless, to say the least. –  TimLymington Dec 26 '12 at 14:18
    
@TimLymington Are not “each of the two” and “both” the same? –  tchrist Dec 26 '12 at 14:20
    
No. In a one-way street, you can drive on either side, or each side; but I've never met anyone who can drive on both sides. –  TimLymington Dec 26 '12 at 15:10
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@tchrist: Yes, although one side might be considerably safer than the other. –  J.R. Dec 26 '12 at 15:36
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“He wore a ring on the fourth finger of each hand” -- not a ring on both hands -- he would not have been able to work, tied up that way. –  Kris Dec 27 '12 at 6:41

"Either" and "Both" have strikingly similar definitions (in at least one of their definitions):

either : being the one and the other of two

both : the one as well as the other

However, "both" often has a context of at the same time, whereas "either" often has a context of one at a time. So there are certainly times when they are not interchangeable. For instance:

I'd like either an apple or an orange.

I'd like both an apple and an orange.

But there are also times where they are interchangeable:

Bob plays both instruments well.

Bob plays either instrument well.

It all depends on context.

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