A picture was shown to the student. In the picture a girl was missing her shoes, another girl was missing her mittens, and a boy was missing his hat. This is the student's description of the picture:

The children either forgot their shoes, mittens, or hats.

Is either correctly placed, and is it properly used with more than two alternatives?

  • I glanced at a few online dictionaries. An aspect of "either" is a choice of one out of two. The sentence seems incorrect because it asking the viewer to choose one out of three. – rajah9 Dec 5 '12 at 19:43
  • 3
    @rajah9 No, this is mistaken. Either can be one of several. See the OED. – tchrist Dec 5 '12 at 19:51
  • thefreedictionary.com/either has an extensive usage note. It starts "The traditional rule holds that either should be used only to refer to one of two items and that any is required when more than two items are involved." It goes on to agree with you and the portion of the OED you quoted. "But reputable writers have often violated this rule." It's difficult to know when to apply the rule and when to set it aside; however, the OP seems to be asking about the rule. – rajah9 Dec 5 '12 at 20:47
  • I remember my fifth grade teacher's response to questions that start with "Can I...?" "You can, but you may not." – rajah9 Dec 5 '12 at 20:49
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    M'sieur Rajah - what are you saying? Either is one out of a list/set/collection of choices of any number. – Blessed Geek Dec 6 '12 at 2:32

This sentence is not, as it stands, grammatical. It's possible to guess what it means, but the position of either creates ambiguity.

Either should come immediately before the list of alternatives it marks: “Either A or B” or “Either A, B, or C”. (Strictly, a parenthetical phrase may intervene, but it's better to avoid that; in any case, it's not in play here.)

In this case, putting Either before forgot leads the reader to expect an alternative which is headed by a verb (I've interpolated [A], [B], &c solely to clarify the structure):

The children either [A] forgot their shoes, mittens or hats or [B] took them off when they came to school.

What the sentence probably means is:

The children forgot either [A] their shoes, [B] their mittens, or [C] their hats.

If the point at issue here is not the position of either but its use to head a list of more than two alternatives, the question is an Exact Duplicate of this question. My own opinion is that the word serves to announce the beginning of a list of alternatives, and that since the word has been used to introduce lists of more than two alternatives since the 12th century, with no more or less misunderstanding or ambiguity than is inherent in the use of or alone, there is no reason to restrict its use to binary choices.

  • Which to clarify, wherever it is positioned, 'either' is OK with a choice of 2 or more? – Mitch Dec 5 '12 at 19:46
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    @Mitch Whether it is "ok" or not depends on how prescriptivist you are, but yes, it certainly occurs, and is documented as such in the OED. Saying "Either Mary, Martha, or Maude will escort you to the door" is not exceptional. It just means "any one of several". – tchrist Dec 5 '12 at 19:50
  • @Mitch As far as I'm concerned, it's just dandy. OED 1 cites uses with more than two as far back as the 12th century, so I regard the restriction as a dangerous and insolent innovation. – StoneyB Dec 5 '12 at 21:38
  • Actually, all I was doing was trying to elicit such comments -in- the answer, because that was the aspect that the OP seemed to care about, not so mich the position. – Mitch Dec 5 '12 at 21:52
  • @Mitch: The position matters more than whether either can be used for more than two options because the position tells the reader/listener what the options are. OTOH, the answer should probably contain a sentence saying that "Either can be used for more than two options". – user21497 Dec 5 '12 at 22:06

As an alternative to being so compact you could use something like the following to make it clearer. "Each of the three children didn't to wear to school an essential item of clothing. One child didn't have shoes, another forgot the hat and another didn't have mittens. Whilst we can sometimes manage to loan an item from the lost & found when someone accidentally rips their shirt at playtime, it is the parents and their childrens responsibility to arrive at school appropriately dressed. We were unable to assist in this instance and the children were sent home.

P.S. This should have been a comment but there's no comment links appearing for my iphone.


Let us look at the syntax tree of

The children either forgot their shoes, mittens, or hats.

{Entity} either {

Where list-of-choices is exemplified by

{Entity} either {
  {choice 1},
  {choice 2},
  {choice 3}, ...
  or {choice m},

The principle is that each choice should be able to form a well-formed statement with the entity:

Either {
  {entity}{choice 1},
  {entity}{choice 2},
  {entity}{choice 3}, ...
  or {entity}{choice m}


{The children} either {
  forgot their shoes,
  or hats

should be transformable into

Either {
  {the children}{forgot their shoes},
  {the children}{mittens},
  or {the children}{hats},

Therefore, a more precise way to say it would be

{The children} forgot either {
  their shoes,
  their mittens,
  or their hat

because the following transform would comprise well-formed statements:

Either {
  {the children}{forgot their shoes},
  {the children}{forgot their mittens},
  or {the children}{forgot their hat}

Which is still not precise enough because there are only three children and only three choices where each choice is exclusive to a child. i.e. there is a one-to-one relationship between the deficiency and a child.

The following is more precise

{Each child} forgot either {
  his or her shoes,
  his or her mittens,
  or his or her hat

However, the English language is very forgiving where clarity takes precedence over syntax.

{Each child} forgot either {
  their shoes,
  or hat

If the pronoun "their" is allowed to elide into the choice list, then why not the the adv/adj "either"?

Therefore, the sentence

The children either forgot their shoes, mittens, or hats.

is not as syntactically logical but it does present a measure of clarity and brevity, as well as a provocatively annoying variance of style.

I would say, go for it. Let the language evolve.

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