The Difference Between ‘Either, ‘Neither’ and ‘Both’

‘Both,’ ‘either’ and ‘neither’ are words that are often taught together in grammar because they are all words that are used to express different types of agreement or disagreement in sentences. They are also all words that are used to convey situations concerning two joint subjects or objects.

Learning these three words together helps students to understand new ways to express agreement and disagreement in various situations. It also helps clarify the difference between inclusive and exclusive choices when dealing with multiple options.

two equals


The word ‘both’ can function as a variety of word classes or parts of speech including a determiner, pronoun or adverb used to indicate that two items or people are considered either together or simultaneously.

The Cambridge Online dictionary defines it thus:

Referring to two people or things together

Here are some examples to illustrate common usages of ‘both’:

  • Both my sisters enjoy reading.
  • Both Tom and John go running regularly.
  • Please keep both your hands on the wheel when driving.
  • Listen to both sides of the story before you make a judgement.

The word ‘both’ is frequently used to indicate the existence of a combination of two things.

For more on the parts of speech, please read the relevant article.

As a determiner, ‘both’ directly modifies two singular or plural nouns to show that they both are simultaneously the subject or object of a sentence:

  • Both cats and dogs make great pets.
  • Tina likes both the new and the old versions of the song.

As a pronoun, ‘both’ stands in for the two items mentioned in a preceding context:

  • I like ice cream, and she does too. We both enjoy it.
  • There are two options: you can take the bus or walk. Both are good choices.

As an adverb, ‘both’ is often used to emphasise that the action or quality applies to two separate things or people:

  • They both arrived late to the meeting.
  • The cake is both delicious and beautifully decorated.
  • She ran both quickly and efficiently in the race.

‘Both’ can also be used in negative sentences to show that neither of two things is true:

  • Both of the candidates failed to answer the question correctly.

In questions, ‘both’ can inquire about two options or possibilities:

  • Did you invite both Tom and Sarah to the party?
  • Have you both eaten?

The above examples show that ‘both’ is often used in conjunction with the word ‘and’ to indicate a combination of two things, but this is not essential and depends on the context.


The word ‘either’ can be used as a pronoun, an adjective, a conjunction or an adverb.

The Cambridge Online dictionary defines two uses of the word:

Used when referring to a choice between two possibilities

Used instead of ‘also’ or ‘too’

Here are some examples to illustrate common usages of ‘either’:

  • You can have either chocolate or strawberry flavour.
  • Either he goes or I do.
  • Either road will get you there; you can go left or right.
  • Either one of you can go to the party, but not both of you.

As a pronoun, ‘either’ can be used to refer to one of two alternatives:

  • You can have either the chocolate cake or the vanilla cake for dessert.
  • You can either take the bike or the car.

‘Either’ can act as an adjective when it modifies a singular noun to show that there are two possibilities:

  • I can meet you at either time that works for you.

Here, ‘either’ modifies the noun ‘time’ indicating there are two possible times to choose from.

‘Either’ can also function as a conjunction, see the relevant post for this, to introduce two alternatives or options:

  • You can either take the train or drive to the city.

In this example, ‘either’ introduces the two choices of taking the train or driving. Notice that in affirmative sentences, ‘either’ is frequently paired with ‘or’ to indicate a choice between two possibilities.

‘Either’ can also be used as an adverb to emphasise that something is true for both the options mentioned:

  • They can speak either English or Spanish fluently.

In the above context, ‘either’ conveys an ability to speak fluently that applies to both languages.

two equals


The word ‘neither’ is used as a determiner, pronoun, conjunction or adverb, and is typically used to indicate not one and not the other of two mentioned options or possibilities. ‘Neither’ is essentially ‘either’ with an added -n to negate it. ‘Neither’ expresses negation and comparison in various contexts, and where ‘either’ is paired with ‘or’, ‘neither’ is characteristically paired with ‘nor’ to create negative statements.

The Cambridge Online dictionary defines two uses of the word as:

Not either of two things or people

When one wants to say that two or more things are not true

Here are some examples from the ‘either’ section above whose logic has been changed from ‘either’ to ‘neither’:

  • You can have neither chocolate nor strawberry flavour; we only have vanilla in stock.
  • Neither he nor I will go.
  • Neither road will get you there; you can go neither left nor right.
  • Neither one of us will go to the party if it rains.

As a determiner, ‘neither’ is used to indicate that none of two options is available:

  • Neither book is mine.

As a pronoun, ‘neither’ is used to refer to both options:

  • I can’t decide between these two desserts. Neither is my favourite.

As a conjunction, ‘neither’ is used to create a negative statement indicating a lack of preference or opinion:

  • I neither like nor dislike the new policy.

As an adverb, ‘neither’ serves to describe the extent of an expression:

  • She is neither happy nor sad about the news; she’s indifferent.

In a different context, ‘neither’ can be used to confirm agreement between two people’s opinions:

  • I don’t like this restaurant, and neither does he.
  • A: I don’t like this restaurant.
    • B: Neither do I.


As is the case with many words in the English language, ‘both’, ‘either’ and neither can be used in a variety of word classes:

                A moderate eater can eat moderately!

Do not allow the classification of ‘both’, ‘either’ and ‘neither’ into their different word classes to confuse you as to their use. If anything, it is easier to learn these words because, no matter what part of speech they function as, their appearance remains unchanged.

If you have any questions or comments about this article, please do enter them below.


Burton-Roberts, Noel. Analysing Sentences: An Introduction to English Syntax, 4th edn (Routledge, 2016)

Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, 3rd edn (Cambridge University Press, 2019)

Hewings, Martin, and others. Cambridge English Grammar and Vocabulary for Advanced (Cambridge University Press, 2015)

Huddleston, Rodney, and others. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Cambridge University Press, 2002)

Parrott, Martin. Grammar for English Language Teachers, 2nd edn (Cambridge University Press, 2011)

Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct (Penguin Random House, 2015)

Pinker, Steven. Words and Rules (W&N/ Science Masters, 2001)

Quirk, Randolph, and others. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, reprint edn (Pearson, 2011)

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