Let’s talk about the pesky little words ‘or’ and ‘nor’. Some simple guidelines will help you use these words correctly, but the grammar rules aren’t actually as set in stone as you might think.
When to use ‘or’
‘Or’ is a conjunction that shows a choice between options. It can be used with ‘either’.
- ‘I’m going to either turn you into a vampire or drink all your blood.’
- ‘Is that blood or maple syrup on your shirt?’
- ‘Either you do my bidding or I’m going to feed you to my wolves.’
In these examples, two options are being presented. In each, one of the options will be true.
When to use ‘nor’
‘Nor’ is also a conjunction, but it’s used when you’re denying or refuting options. It can be used with ‘neither’ or other negatives – such as ‘no’, ‘not’ or ‘never’.
- ‘I’m going to neither turn you into a vampire nor drink all your blood.’
- ‘I’ve never stained a shirt, nor will I ever – I don’t wear clothes.’
- ‘I will not do your bidding, nor will I allow you to feed me to your wolves.’
In these examples, neither of the options will be or are true.
Using established negatives with ‘or’
Here’s the potentially confusing bit, though. Sometimes, colloquially, we might use ‘or’ with an established negative. We’d never use ‘or’ with ‘neither’, though. Don’t ask me why – it’s just one of those things.
- ‘I’m not going to turn you into a vampire or drink all your blood.’
- ‘There are no wolves – or any predators – in these woods.’
- ‘He won’t drink my blood or my homemade beer. Rude.’
The key here is to use your ear. Using ‘nor’ in these examples can seem a bit fussy. Compare the two examples about turning someone into a vampire, for instance. The one that uses ‘nor’ feels very formal and old-fashioned compared to the one that uses ‘or’ with the negative.
In other instances, though, it would seem wrong to use ‘or’ instead of ‘nor’!
Just with any grammatical rule, there are established basics that we all seem to agree on. Then there are the nuances.
Some people try to create additional, more complicated rules around these nuances … but nuances are often greatly affected by voice and context, making it difficult to really set these rules in stone. This is especially true for creative writing and informal writing.
The bottom line when using ‘or’ or ‘nor’
Generally, when giving options, use ‘either’ with ‘or.’ For example, ‘You can either have coffee or tea.’ When denying options, use ‘neither’ with ‘nor.’ For example, ‘Neither John nor Jane likes coffee.’ However, if it sounds natural in the context, you can use ‘or’ with negative statements that are introduced with a negative word that isn’t ‘neither’.