48

Does “either . . . or” apply to only two options?

For example, can I say, “It can provide either 100, 150, or 400 amps of power”? Or should it just be “It can provide 100, 150, or 400 amps of power”?

  • 6
    Amps (amperes) are not units of power. Amps are units of electrical current. It might be okay to say Amps of electricity (current is electrical flow in a conductor). – user66792 Feb 22 '14 at 23:19
23

First of all, it's common usage, that is, in native English speech, to refer to multiple choices using either, but it's not entirely grammatical (from a prescriptivist's point of view). The definition of either is:

Each of two. [from 9th c.]  
One or the other of two. [from 14th c.]  

Note that I say it's common in informal speech and usage, but probably not for formal contexts.

An entire page of Wikipedia was devoted to this word, and the definition given was:

Either/or means "one or the other." Its usage, versus the simple or structure, is often for emphatic purposes, sometimes intending to emphasize that only one option is possible, or to emphasize that there are only two options.


Thus, it depends on what the context is. If in speech, then either would be appropriate. If however, in a formal context (business letter, etc.), then using either for multiple choices would be inappropriate.

  • 5
    This answer neglects that the OED attests that either sometimes means “any one of more than two”. It is not a common usage, however, and most copyeditors frown on it. – tchrist Sep 2 '12 at 19:10
  • Note that whether follows similar rules. – Anonym Feb 21 '14 at 16:48
  • 3
    This answer makes the claim that using "either" for multiple choices is inappropriate in formal usage. There is no evidence to back up this claim in the sources that were given. I do not think that this answer answers the question. – ktm5124 Mar 17 '17 at 18:16
9

Either is used where one is required and there are multiple options, usually two. It can be used for more than two but it is most often is used for only 2 options.

In the sentence you're asking about you could say:

It can provide either 100, 150, or 400 amps of power

But it will sound better if you say

It can provide 100, 150, or 400 amps of power

because saying either makes the options sound limited even though there are multiple options.

4

... while either coordinations are characteristically binary, multiple ones like either Kim, Pat or Alex are also possible. 1


Although commonly stigmatized, (a multiple correlative like either) can add clarity to constructions whose complexity might otherwise cause confusion. For this reason, such constructions are sometimes used even in careful written English, eg in the rubric of an examination paper:
Candidates are required to answer EITHER Question 1 OR Question 2 OR Question 3 and 4. 2

  • IMO "either" does not add clarity here. If you are used to "either" meaning "one of two" then it might lead you to believe that there are only two choices, when in fact there are three. So while I agree that it's not strictly speaking ungrammatical, IMO it's generally better to limit it to binary cases to avoid confusion. – stackexchanger Apr 17 '17 at 19:35
3

You can use "either" for more than two options, but what do you want to say? The first example (with "either") implies that you would need a different power source to provide each one of the outputs. "Either" emphasizes exclusive possibilities. The second example implies that it (i.e. the same power source) can provide all three options - 100, 150 and 400 amps. In context, though, either example could be construed to include both meanings.

  • 1
    ha! I like how you used either in answering this question! – Code Jockey Jan 30 '15 at 13:42
0

It is common to add the 'either' to a disjunction to emphasize that you are only considering one of two options, like adding 'both' to a conjunction. So it is awkward to use it for more than two options, as that expectation can trip up readers.

0

Either...or means exclusively one or the other. That is to say, one or the other can be true but not both. This is called XOR in boolean algebra.

You can have either cake or ice cream for dessert.

There can be more than two options though. It just means that only one can be true.

protected by tchrist Aug 13 '14 at 14:32

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

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