Janice Hall Heck

Finding hope in a chaotic world…

Archive for the tag “Humpty Dumpty”

#AtoZ: N is for Neither–Nor, but not Humpty Dumpty

atoz [2014] - BANNER - 910

What do the following people and one organization have in common? logo 2.2

Humpty Dumpty
the biblical writer Paul
Benjamin Franklin
Jack London
United States Postal Service

Give up? They all have a fondness for using the neither–nor construction in their writing.

The neither–nor construction looks like this:

Neither Humpty Dumpty nor Jack London live in Florida.

Neither–nor can be an effective construction in writing, but watch out for a few writing quirks that go with it. I’ll point these near the end of the post. But first, let’s check in with Humpty Dumpty and see what he has to say.

Humpty Dumpty

Illustration by John Tenniel from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Illustration by John Tenniel from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

In Through the Looking-Glass (Lewis Carroll, 1871), Humpty Dumpty and Alice have a “nice knock-down argument” about “unbirthdays” and about what the word “glory”  means. When Alice challenges Humpty on his definition of glory, Humpty says this:

When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.”

Humpty does seem rather brash and dogmatic, but I kinda like his idea of unbirthdays. More unbirthdays, more presents!


Shakespeare uses several neither–nor constructions in his works. In Hamlet, He says this:

Neither a borrower nor a lender be, for loan oft loses both itself and friend…”

I originally thought this was a biblical injunction and was surprised to see that the quote actually came from Shakespeare.

 Benjamin Franklin

The old man with a key on a kite in the middle of a thunder and lightning storm had a lot to say about life. You can find many of his witticisms and proverbs in his annual Almanacs. Here’s a sample:

Be neither silly, nor cunning, but wise. Poor Richard’s Almanac, 1734.

Jack London, The Call of the Wild

When I was a teacher, I loved reading the Call of the Wild with my students. London’s flow of language is superb; you can find good classic sentences throughout his writing.  In 1897, thieves steal Buck, a spoiled and sheltered family dog, half St. Bernard and half Scotch shepherd, from his homestead in California and ship him, drugged into a stupor, to Seattle. There a “man in a red sweater” unmercilessly beats Buck into submission in preparation for being trained as a sled dog for mushers seeking their fortune in the seductive Yukon gold. These few sentences describe a bit of the incredibly harsh life Buck has the misfortune to fall into.

Here was neither peace, nor rest, nor a moment’s safety. All was confusion and action, and every moment life and limb were in peril. There was imperative need to be constantly alert, for these dogs and men were not town dogs and men. They were savages, all of them, who knew no law but the law of club and fang.” Chapter 2, The Call of the Wild

London used the construction, neither–nor–nor. Bryan Garner in Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009), calls the use of multiple nors in sentences “unfastidious constructions.” He suggests that it is incorrect to use neither–nor with only two elements. With three elements, the sentence should read like this: “They considered neither x, y, nor z.” But we do see examples with multiple nors used nicely by various writers. Good writers know when to break the rules.

United States Post Office, Neither–nor–nor–nor

You have probably heard this quote a number of times. It is from an inscription on the James Farley Post Office in New York City .

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

Paul, the Biblical Writer

Paul uses neither and multiple nors in his belief statement:

38 For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,
39 Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:38-39, King James Version

This is a powerful statement of the depth of his beliefs. The multiple nors make this an emphatic statement.

Quirks with neither–nor. Watch out!

1.  Verb Agreement: the second item determines the verb structure.

Use a singular verb when the items in the list are singular, and also when the first item is plural but the second item is singular.

Neither the cat nor the dog sleeps on my bed.
Neither the cats nor the dog sleeps on my bed.

Use a plural verb when both items are plural, and when the first item is singular but the second item is plural.

Neither the cats nor the dogs sleep on my bed.
Neither the cat nor the dogs sleep on my bed.

Occasionally, a sentence construction may sound awkward using these rules. If so, try reversing the order of the items.

2. Parallel Structure

Parallel structure means keeping both items named in the neither-nor construction from the same part of speech. This can get quirky in longer sentences.

nouns:  Neither the cat nor the dog sleeps on my bed.
pronouns: Neither You nor I can complain.
adjectives:  Be neither silly nor cunning.
verbs: I will neither call you nor speak to you anymore.
adverbs: …neither more nor less
gerunds: Neither crying nor pouting will get you more birthday presents.

This applies to phrases as well.

Neither calling me names nor yelling at me will make me change my mind.

3. Sentence beginning. You may use neither as the first word in a sentence.

Neither the cat nor the dog sleeps on my bed.

4. Use the correct subject pronoun with neither-nor. Subject pronouns are I, you, he, she, it, we, you, they.

Neither he nor I was willing to take the risk of getting caught by the police.
Neither she nor I have good singing voices.
Neither she nor he wants to eat lunch now.
Neither we nor they are going to the party.
Neither you nor they have enough money for pizza.

5. Neither-or (no n) is an incorrect construction. Do not use it. Look for the either–or construction in a future post.


Now here’s a clever example from my husband.

Neither the Dallas Cowboys nor the Cleveland Indians will win the coveted Stanley Cup; however, the Philadelphia Flyers have a good chance of winning it.

Any sports fan will know the absurdity of this comparison. The Dallas Cowboys play football, the Cleveland Indians play baseball, and the Philadelphia Flyers play hockey. Only the Flyers, a hockey team, have the potential to win the Stanley Cup, the ultimate prize in hockey.

Still, I appreciate his helpful suggestions.


Your turn: What writing quirks or interesting words do you find in writing?

Janice Hall Heck, retired educator, blogger, and nitpicky editor of On the Horizon, a bi-monthly community newsletter for Horizons at Woods Landing, Mays Landing, NJ, is quite possibly a grammar geek.

logo 2.2Oh Heck! Another Writing Quirk,  theme for the amazing 2014 A to Z Challenge, suggests ways to improve our writing by avoiding and/or eliminating troublesome bug-a-boos that cramp our writing style.



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