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I'm writing a short story for my own when I came across this dilemma:

"And the question was immediate to a point of self-acknowledgement of either one’s inability to formulate abstraction into comprehensibly concise sentences… or just pure stupidity."

or

"And the question was immediate to a point of self-acknowledgement of one’s either inability to formulate abstraction into comprehensibly concise sentences… or just pure stupidity."

It really bothers me because there is a difference between the length of "inability to formulate abstraction into comprehensibly concise sentences" and "just pure stupidity." However, since I'm trying to create contrast + anticlimax through "or just pure stupidity," I am trying to use as few words there as possible, thus trying not to put another "one's" there (it sounds redundant too).

Can someone tell me which one is correct? It would even be better if a better alternative is proposed.

  • Preliminary thoughts: Although "of one’s either ..." would be the logical choice, it hampers readability; on the other hand, "of either one’s ..." can work, in a different sense ("one's" not common for the two clauses), too seems an awkward construction. When using the either-or pair, try making the alternatives as short as possible, that is, not to make the reader wait too long after either for the or. – Kris Jan 25 '15 at 8:24
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    "self-acknowledgement of (either deleted) one’s inability to formulate abstraction into comprehensibly concise sentences, if not just pure stupidity." – Kris Jan 25 '15 at 8:26
  • "And the question was immediate to a point of self-acknowledgement of either one’s inability to formulate abstraction into comprehensibly concise sentences...." Are you kidding? What does this mean? – Jim Reynolds Jan 25 '15 at 12:04
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My answer is based not on research, but on education and experience, and more than 50 years of writing.

First, you are correct in questioning your first choice. There is no real problem with the noticeable difference in the length of the "either" and "or" phrases -- in fact, such a juxtaposition of a long, complex phrase with a short, simple one can be very effective. However, either and or are correlative conjunctions, and they must introduce alternatives that are phrased identically -- in your sentence, there is a slight difference in the construction of the two alternative phrases. "Either" deals with a specific person's failure: "one's inability...". "Or" addresses a nonspecific attribute: "just plain stupidity". I realize that the use of "self-acknowledgement" does effectively pin the alleged stupidity to one person, but you're asking a lot of the reader to recall that word and apply it at the end of the sentence.

As to your second choice, "one's either inability...or...stupidity" might seem to be a logically correct grammatical construct, but I've never seen it used, and it would certainly break the reader's train of thought.

Finally, although you didn't request any discussion of the use of "one" and "one's", and although this usage is grammatically correct, it is somewhat dated. Today it is more common to see "you" and "your" used in such situations.

Rather than choose between your two offerings, I'll suggest a third alternative: "And the question was immediate to a point of self-acknowledgement: that you were either unable to formulate an abstraction into a comprehensibly concise sentence…or just plain stupid."

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I suggest rewording the relevant segment thus:

"...either of one's inability to [...], or simply of pure stupidity."

However, there is another problem that you haven't asked about. This is that the segment

"And the question was immediate to a point of self-acknowledgement"

is incomprehensible.

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