Correlative Conjunctions  

What is a correlative conjunction?

Correlative conjunctions, or paired conjunctions, are sets of conjunctions that are always used together. Like coordinating conjunctions, they join words, phrases, or independent clauses of similar or equal importance and structure. Unlike coordinating conjunctions, they can only join two elements together, no more. Some of the most common correlative conjunctions are:
  • both … and
  • either … or
  • just as … so
  • neither … nor
  • not … but
  • not only … but also
  • whether … or

Functions of correlative conjunctions

both … and

We use both … and when we want to put emphasis on two elements that are true in a sentence. We could also use the coordinating conjunction and, but it doesn’t achieve the same emphatic effect. Compare:
  • “This house is large and cozy.”
  • “This house is both large and cozy.”
  • “She cleaned her room and washed the dishes.”
  • “She both cleaned her room and washed the dishes.”
  • “My mother and father are bookworms.”
  • Both my mother and my father are bookworms.”
In the above examples, the sentences using both … and are more emphatic. Note, however, that the both … and construction doesn’t join independent clauses, only words or phrases.

either … or

We use either … or to present two options. Again, it emphasizes the fact that the choice is limited to only the two given options. For example:
  • “I want to paint the house either white or green.”
  • “Let’s either go swimming or go shopping.”
  • Either your father will pick you up, or you’ll get a ride home with a friend.”

neither … nor

We use neither … nor to negate two options. For example:
  • “I have neither the time nor the patience for silly TV programs.” (I don’t have time, and I don’t have patience.)
  • Neither James nor Mike enjoys playing basketball.” (James and Mike both do not enjoy playing basketball.)
  • Neither does he understand, nor does he care.” (He doesn’t understand, and he doesn’t care.)
Note that when neither and nor begin two independent clauses, we must use negative inversion (the reversal of the subject and auxiliary verb) for each, as in the third example.

not … but

We use not … but to express a contradiction, negating the first option while emphasizing the second. For example:
  • “He’s not happy but thrilled!”
  • “She did not like but loved her new earrings.”
  • Not just one friend turned up to help, but the entire team arrived.”

not only … but also

We use not only … but also to emphasize an additional element in the sentence, especially when its occurrence seems contradictory or surprising in light of what we already know. For example:
  • “This house is not only large but also cozy.” (The speaker believes that large houses are not usually cozy.)
  • “She not only cleaned her room, but she also washed the dishes.” (The speaker is surprised that she did both chores.)
  • Not only is she an award-winning singer, but she also runs track.” (The speaker is impressed that she is able to do these two unrelated activities.)
Note that when not only is used to introduce an independent clause, as in the third example, we must use negative inversion (like with neither … nor). When but begins the second independent clause, the subject comes between it and also.

just as … so

We use just as … so to indicate that the two elements being joined are similar. Usually, just as begins an independent clause, and so is followed by a second independent clause. Traditionally, the clause after so should be inverted, as in:
  • Just as I love films, so does my brother love sports.”
  • Just as Americans love baseball, so do Europeans love soccer.”
  • Just as French is spoken in France, so is English spoken in England.”
However, it’s also common (especially in informal writing and speech) for this structure to occur without inversion, as in:
  • Just as I love films, so my brother loves sports.”
  • Just as Americans love baseball, so Europeans love soccer.”
  • Just as French is spoken in France, so English is spoken in England.”

whether … or

We use whether … or to express doubt between two possible options. Whether has the same meaning as if in this regard. For example:
  • “I don’t know whether the white paint or the green paint is better.”
  • “He’s not sure whether he’ll be able to attend the game or not.”
We also use whether … or to indicate that something will happen no matter which choice is made. For example:
  • Whether we stay home and eat a pizza, or we go out and watch a film, I’m sure we’ll have a good time.”
  • “I’m going to help you whether you like it or not.”

Using correlative conjunctions

Parallel Structure

When we use correlative conjunctions, it’s important to use parallel structure, especially in formal writing. Parallel structure requires both elements that are joined by the correlative conjunction to be equal. For example:
  • “This house is both large and cozy.” (Two adjectives are joined.)
  • “Let’s either go swimming or go shopping.” (Two verb phrases are joined.)
  • Either your father will pick you up, or you’ll get a ride home with a friend.” (Two independent clauses are joined.)
Using correlative conjunctions to join non-parallel structures is considered incorrect. For example:
Although the sentences above may be heard in everyday speech, they are considered incorrect.

Punctuation

When we use a correlative conjunction to join two independent clauses, we separate the two clauses with a comma, as in:
  • Either your father will pick you up, or you’ll get a ride home with a friend.”
  • Not only is she an award-winning singer, but she also runs track.”
  • “She not only cleaned her room, but she also washed the dishes.”
We generally do not use commas when the two elements being joined are not independent clauses. For example:
  • “This house is both large and cozy.”
  • “I want to paint the house either white or green.”
  • Neither James nor Mike enjoys playing basketball.”

Subject-verb agreement

When we join two subjects with a correlative conjunction, subject-verb agreement can be tricky. Luckily, there are some widely accepted rules to help us.

Two singular subjects

In general, when we join two singular subjects using a correlative conjunction, the verb that follows should be singular. For example:
  • “Neither the plumber nor the electrician is here yet.”
  • “Not only Mike but also Daniel is coming with us.”
One exception to this rule is when using both … and. In this case, we use a plural subject:
  • “Both Mike and Daniel are coming with us.”

Two plural subjects

When we join two plural subjects, the verb that follows should also be plural. For example:
  • “Neither the plumbers nor the electricians are here yet.”
  • “Not only Mike’s friends but also Daniel’s friends are coming with us.”

One singular and one plural subject

Sometimes, we join a singular subject to a plural subject. In this case, the majority of style guides state that the verb should agree with the noun that is closest to it. For example:
  • “Every day both the cat and the dogs wake me up.” (Wake is plural because the dogs is plural.)
  • “Neither my cousins nor my mom likes swimming.” (Likes is singular, because mom is singular.)
However, there are also those who believe that if either of the subjects is plural, then the verb should also be plural. According to this preference, the second sentence above would require the plural form of the verb because the first subject, my cousins, is plural:
  • “Neither my cousins nor my mom like swimming.”
If this is confusing or you’re not sure which style you should use, you can avoid the problem entirely by switching the order of the subjects so that the plural subject comes closest to the verb. In this way, we satisfy both styles:
  • “Neither my mom nor my cousins like swimming.”

Pronoun agreement

Just as we have to take extra care with subject-verb agreement, we also have to be careful with pronoun agreement when using correlative conjunctions.

Two singular subjects

When we join two singular subjects, we should use a singular pronoun. For example:
  • “Neither Mike nor Daniel found his shoes.”
  • “Not only Jen but also Sara lost her book.”
Again, both … and presents an exception. We normally use a plural pronoun with this correlative conjunction:
  • “Both Mike and Daniel found their shoes.”

Two plural subjects

When we join two plural subjects, we should use a plural pronoun to refer back to them. For example:
  • “Neither Mike’s friends nor Daniel’s friends brought their shoes.”
  • “I don’t know whether the girls or the boys have had their breakfast.”

One singular subject and one plural subject

When we join a singular subject and a plural subject, we run into the same problem that we had with subject-verb agreement. Again, the most widely accepted practice is that the pronoun should agree with whichever noun is closest to it. For example:
  • “Neither Mike nor his friends stated their opinion.” (Their agrees with his friends.)
  • “Neither Mike’s friends nor Mike stated his opinion.” (His agrees with Mike.)
As with subject-verb agreement, the other side of the argument is that if either of the subjects is plural, the pronoun should be plural. In this case, the second example above would be rewritten as:
  • “Neither Mike’s friends nor Mike stated their opinion.”
Again, we can avoid the issue entirely by rewriting the sentence so that the plural subject is closest to the pronoun:
  • “Neither Mike nor his friends stated their opinion.”
Quiz

1. Correlative conjunctions are conjunctions that join ________ together.





2. Which of the following word pairs is not a correlative conjunction?





3. Complete the following sentence with the correct correlative conjunction:
“________ my friend studied a lot ________ he’s a genius, because he got an A+ on the test.”





4. Complete the following sentence with the correct correlative conjunction:
“He’s ________ a great rock climber ________ an expert skier.”





5. Which of the following sentences must have a comma?





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