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I use either...or / neither...nor to introduce two alternatives - 'this' or 'that'. So I was surprised to read the following in (British) The Spectator magazine -

If the same claim were made on TV, on radio or in print, it would have been rejected because it’s neither legal, decent, honest nor truthful.

The use of neither to herald a list of more than two things sounds wrong to my British ears.

The OED defines either as both

each of two

and

each of more than two

However the OED labels the second of these usages both 'obsolete' and 'nonstandard'.

Well, obviously the usage is not obsolete! Not only did I read it in a British magazine today but also it is used in the official motto of the United States Postal Service: "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds" (an adaptation in the early 20th century of words by Herodotus, about 2500 years ago).

British and American English is full of interesting differences. And new Americanisms are regularly being added to British English. Is neither/either (for more than two items) an old-time usage that the UK dropped but the USA retained (and is now exporting back to the UK!)?

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    Yes, it's not limited to two. This is the official motto of the United States Postal Service, for instance: "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." Commented Apr 17, 2023 at 19:59
  • Would you prefer "because it’s illegal, indecent, dishonest and untruthful"? (Four different ways that negation is done.) I suppose they did it that way because those four qualities are the hallmark of acceptable advertising in the UK, as required by the Advertising Standards Authority Commented Apr 17, 2023 at 20:04
  • The usage with either ("either A, B, or C") is common in both British and American English, no?
    – alphabet
    Commented Apr 18, 2023 at 2:32
  • 2
    You skipped something in the OED? See either II. Expressing alternatives. 3. In correlative constructions with a conjunction, introducing the mention of alternatives. // Samples: Heads either of Men, Beasts, or Birds, are very frequent in Armoury... // He..was forbidden..to touch either map, ephemeris, book of astronomical observations, sextant, time-keeper, or any of my surveys or drawings // A narration of events, either past, present, or to come // I would not have thought of eating a meal without drinking either wine or cider or beer Commented Apr 18, 2023 at 3:17
  • 1
    "[I]t’s neither legal, decent, honest nor truthful" is readily understood, distinguishes "truthful" from the other items mentioned, and emphasizes it. Saying "it's not legal, decent, honest or truthful" lacks that emphasis, so the quoted phrase can be viewed as a rhetorical construction.
    – Wastrel
    Commented Apr 18, 2023 at 15:00

2 Answers 2

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I think it's not so much an Americanism as prescriptive grammar.

First, Americanism is not mentioned in the relevant sections of either A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (Quirk, et al.) or The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum).

A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language

13.39 Restrictions·on correlatives
According to a didactic tradition, the use of correlative coordinators is unacceptable when there are three or more conjoins:

?We are both willing, able, and ready to carry out the survey. [1]
?Either the Minister, or the Under-secretary, or the Permanent Secretary will attend the meeting. [2]
?Tompkins has neither the personality, the energy, nor the experience to win this election. [3]
...
...
Although commonly stigmatized, multiple correlatives such as [1-3] 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 Questions 3 and 4.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language

Neither as marker of coordination
As a marker of coordination, neither is usually paired correlatively with nor. It can occur (like either) in multiple as well as the more usual binary coordination, and (like both) it cannot occur initially in a coordination of main clauses:

[48] i She found it [neither surprising nor alarming]. [binary]
ii He was [neither kind, handsome, nor rich]. [multiple]
iii *Neither did he oversleep nor was his bus late. [main clause coordination]

Being descriptive grammars, both CGELs (written by British linguists) endorse the multiple coordination.

Garner's Modern English Usage, Fifth Edition (a prescriptive usage manual written by an American legal scholar and lexicographer), on the other hand, does not endorse the multiple coordination, although it acknowledges there are attested examples of the usage among well-educated people:

B. Number of Elements. These correlative conjunctions best frame only two elements, not more. Though it’s possible to find both modern and historical examples of neither . . . nor with more than two elements, these are unfastidious constructions. When three or more are involved, it’s better not to say *They considered neither x, y, nor z. Instead, say They didn’t consider x, y, or z. Or it’s permissible to use a second nor emphatically in framing three elements: They considered neither x, nor y, nor z. Cf. either (b).
Language-Change Index neither . . . nor with more than two elements: Stage 3

FYI, Stage 3 means this:

Stage 3: The form becomes commonplace even among many well-educated people, but it’s still avoided in careful usage. Examples include *adopted mother for adoptive mother; *gladiolas for gladioli or gladioluses (or simply glads); idyllic for ideal; *miniscule for the correct spelling minuscule; the supposed contraction *’til for the good old word till (as in We’ll be here till noon); peruse used to mean “scan hastily” rather than “read carefully”; and using a nominative pronoun in compound objects such as *between you and I rather than between you and me.

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    It's a strange one. Or perhaps it's me. But I find Huddleston and Pullum's 'neither kind, handsome, nor rich' perfectly fine to my ears, their 'either Kim, Pat, or Alex' less so, and 'The disease was neither cholera, typhoid, nor typhus' somewhat grating. Commented Apr 18, 2023 at 9:45
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    @EdwinAshworth Quirk, et al. did touch on the issue in the portion I've omitted: "It is perhaps understandable, then, that the use of correlatives with more than two conjoins is judged if anything a more obvious stylistic 'fault' in [6], where the conjoins are noun phrases, than in [1], where they are not: ?* Both her mother, her father, and her brother are still alive. [6]" Although they only talked about both...and, the same can be said about neither...nor and either...or.
    – JK2
    Commented Apr 18, 2023 at 10:00
  • I'd include this in the answer. Commented Apr 18, 2023 at 13:44
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    @EdwinAshworth Interesting! With "neither," to me it sounds better if (as in the USPS motto) you repeat the conjunction: "neither cholera, nor typhoid, nor typhus" sounds better than "neither cholera, typhoid, nor typhus." That motto is from 1914, so it isn't that new of a usage.
    – alphabet
    Commented Apr 18, 2023 at 18:08
  • @alphabet - I agree. The usage sounds less strange with repeated *'nor'*s. Perhaps because repeating the '*nor' creates (an illusion of) one-to-one comparisons with the first in the list?
    – Dan
    Commented Apr 18, 2023 at 21:39
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Despite being considered non-standard by the OED according to OP’s statement, it appears that the usage of either…or and neither…nor can extend to more than two items with the Bard himself and Dr. Samuel Johnson (The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography calls him "arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history") using the terms with more than two items. So this usage likely started on the British side of the pond as OP mentioned.

According to Grammarphobia

Either” and “neither” usually refer to only two things, but not always.

When “either” showed up in Old English as ǽghwæðer (also contracted as ǽgðer), it meant “each of two.” And when “neither” showed up in Old English as nauðer (næþer in early Middle English), it meant “none of two.”

Yes, there’s clearly an etymological two-ness about the terms. And as we’ve said, that’s the way “either” and “neither” are generally used.

However, writers haven’t been confined by etymology when the terms are used to introduce a series, as in these examples from Shakespeare:

“They say there is divinity in odd numbers, either in nativity, chance, or death” (from The Merry Wives of Windsor, circa 1597).

“You know neither me, yourselves nor any thing” (from Coriolanus, c. 1605-08).

If Shakespeare’s not good enough for you, how about Samuel Johnson? His biographer, James Boswell, quotes the great lexicographer as saying “neither tea, nor coffee, nor lemonade, nor anything whatever.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language notes that the duality of “either” and “neither” is weakened when they’re used as conjunctions to introduce a series.

The authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, say the two terms can be used “in multiple as well as the more common binary coordination.”

Huddleston and Pullum give these examples: “either Kim, Pat, or Alex” and “neither kind, handsome, nor rich.”

Standard dictionaries generally accept the use of “either” or “neither” to introduce a series of more than two items.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged, for example, says “either” can be used “before two or more coordinate words, phrases, or clauses joined usually by or.” It defines “neither” as “not one of two or more.”

However, dictionaries say “either” and “neither” refer to only two alternatives when used as an adjective (“I’ll take either flavor, vanilla or chocolate”) or a pronoun (“Neither [of them] for me”).

We gave examples above of Shakespeare’s use of “either” and “neither” with more than two items. We’ll end with an example from Hamlet (c. 1600), in which he overdoes the usage to emphasize the pedantry of Polonius:

“The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited.”

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  • I think the adjective/pronoun uses is the important distinction. In those cases we have "any" and "none" when there are more than 2.
    – Barmar
    Commented Apr 18, 2023 at 15:30
  • "Despite being considered non-standard" by whom?
    – JK2
    Commented Apr 20, 2023 at 3:27
  • OP wrote “ However the OED labels the second of these usages both 'obsolete' and 'nonstandard'.” I’ve edited my answer to clarify this point.
    – bookmanu
    Commented Apr 20, 2023 at 6:17
  • Oh, thanks. I don't have access to OED, but I wonder if it's really what OED says.
    – JK2
    Commented Apr 23, 2023 at 9:45

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