Correlative Conjunction

Understanding the Uses of Correlative Conjunction

Correlative conjunctions always travel in pairs.

Correlative conjunctions are connecting words used in pairs (e.g. “both-and,” “either-or,” “neither-nor,” etc.) to join various words, phrasesOpens in new window, or clausesOpens in new window that are grammatically equal in a sentence.

Based in syntax, correlative conjunctions show the relationship between two grammatical elements or ideas expressed in a sentence.

To function appropriately, correlative conjunctions must connect (or coordinate) elements that are parallel; that is, of the same grammatical form.

Observe carefully the following constructions:

  • The problems not only were distorted, but also the speaker ignored the facts. →Wrong

In this sentence, the correlative conjunctions connect the verb phrase Opens in new window “were distorted” with an independent clause Opens in new window. A clause and a phrase are not grammatically parallel.

Now survey this sentence:
  • Not only were the problems distorted, but also the speaker ignored the facts.→Correct

This sentence is grammatically parallel because two clauses are being connected.

Observe more parallel examples below.
  • She led the team not only in statistics but also by virtue of her enthusiasm.
  • Neither January nor February is his favorite month.
  • She like not only October but also April.
  • Bill both likes and dislikes December.
  • Either June or July is my favorite month.

There are several pairing words regarded as correlative conjunctions, but English grammar usually recognizes only four pairings as true correlative conjunctions. These are:

Recognized Pairings in English Grammar
  1. Both/and
  2. Either/or
  3. Not only/but also
  4. Neither/nor

Sometimes other pairs besides the four listed above are said to be correlative conjunctions, but careful study of their use usually shows that their function is one of subordinating, not coordinating.

For example, some people mistakenly consider “whether … or” to be a correlative conjunction, as this sentence depicts:

In reality, this sentence uses a simple coordinating conjunction or to connect two dependent (noun) clauses beginning with the (subordinating) signal word whether, where one of the entities is being implied:

Noun Clause I
  • Whether I eat breakfast or not depends on how much time I have in the morning.
Noun Clause II
  • (Whether I do) not (eat breakfast) depends on how much time I have in the morning.

Avoid using the expression, whether or not, when referring to only one idea.

Observe carefully the following:

  • Whether or not enough precipitation comes to prevent a drought is doubtful.

  • Whether enough precipitation comes to prevent a drought is doubtful.
  • We had to decide whether we would ride the bus or not even go to the parade.

Other subordinating pairs that sometimes appear to have a coordinating function, but which are not true correlative conjunctions include the following:

The more…the moreNo sooner…than
The more…the lessJust…so
As…as, so… asThough…yet