I have come across a number of expressions (both...and..., if...then...) which are named as "correlative" in different grammars (namely Quirk et al.).

The question: What makes an expression a correlative one? Do you know any definition in the Literature?


Most conjunctions link one clause or phrase to another: a coordinate conjunction (like "but" and "or") links two clauses or phrases that are at the same level; a subordinate conjunction (like "although" and "since") links one clause to another one that is at a higher level. Each main clause of a sentence is such that it could still make a complete sentence on its own if you cut off all other clauses plus al conjunctions.

A correlative "conjunction" (like "not only ... but also ...") is basically a subclass or an extension of coordinate conjunctions. As can be seen, a correlative conjunction uses a coordinate conjunction with some extra adverbs in a fixed order (first "not only", then "also"), which could be in either of the two parallel clauses or both.

The only interesting thing about them is that some have an adverb in the first phrase that is only used when a parallel phrase with a specific linked conjunction follows: if you see "either", you know there must be an "or" following it; note that this "or" may be implicit, as in "I don't think either one of them [or the other] did it". But to many correlative conjunctions this does not apply, like "not ... but".

Here follows my own personal, provisional, highly biased opinion, which it would be an honour to receive counter-arguments to. The term "correlative conjunction" is only useful as a category in school books: there is nothing syntactically unique to it; and it is not very useful in linguistics, because there is nothing significant that distinguishes a correlative conjunction from any other combination of conjunction plus adverbial constituent. The fact that it links two closely related phrases is nothing special, unless defined in some exclusive way that I am unaware of. I hope someone can prove me wrong.

  • "there is nothing significant that distinguishes a correlative conjunction from any other combination of conjunction plus adverbial constituent." But correlative elements are much more frequent than any such combination, aren't they?
    – LPC
    Feb 28 '11 at 22:00
  • Hmm... not necessarily, I believe: what about "only ... and ..."? I think that should be fairly frequent. Or is it a correlative conjunction itself? If so, why? Just because it is frequent? Why is frequency important? And why would this label be useful, instead of simply calling it "adverb and conjunction"? I still don't see what's so special about it. Well I suppose it is similar to my friend's "girlfriend": if it were my decision, she'd be just "girl". Feb 28 '11 at 22:21
  • But the fact is that there are some items, which seem to have nothing in common but a rather frequent cooccurrence, which are called correlatives...
    – LPC
    Mar 1 '11 at 21:16
  • @LPC: True. Sometimes we have to accept common practice. But I don't think it is too late to question this one before it becomes too common... let it prove its usefulness, I say! Mar 1 '11 at 21:28
  • So let them take part! Dear users, try and prove Cerberus wrong and take me out of my doubt!
    – LPC
    Mar 1 '11 at 21:32

Correlative in this case means paired or having a relationship with another syntactic element. For example, a correlative conjunction:

A paired conjunction (such as not only . . . but also) that links balanced words, phrases, and clauses.

Examples are:

either . . . or
neither . . . nor
not . . . but
not only . . . but also
  • So it is talking only about the syntactic structure of expressions, not about their meaning or use.
    – Colin Fine
    Feb 28 '11 at 18:27

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.