66 – Grammar shot: Asymmetry with correlatives (either/or)

Happy New Year! I have decided to introduce yet another type of post, namely a grammar shot. While I will aim to keep such posts light-hearted, the emphasis will be on grammar.

 

“How right they are.”

“About what?”

“Charm.”

“What about it?”

“You either have it, or you don’t.”

 “Either you have it, or you don’t.”

“Exactly.”

“No, no, I mean asymmetry.”

“But I was talking about charm.”

“No, yes, what I mean is that you’ve got asymmetry there.”

“Where, where? Pass me the mirror, will you?”

“No, no, not your appearance.”

“Thank goodness! You know what they say about beauty: the more regular your features …”

“No, no, no! I’m talking about grammar.”

“Grammar? What has grammar got to do with charm?”

“No, no, not with charm. But you said: ‘You either have it, or you don’t’.”

“So?”

“You see, ‘either/or’ are correlative conjunctions.”

“Are they really?”

“Yep. Or correlatives – for short.”

“And?”

“Well, people often misplace them, and what results is asymmetry. It’s a very common error.”

“It is?”

“Yep; you’ve just made it.”

“Me?”

“Aha. Just bracket off what comes after each of the correlative conjunctions, and you will see.”

“How do you mean?”

“Look.”

 You either [have it], or [you don’t].

 “So?”

“Now extract the bracketed stuff and put it side by side, like this.”

 First bracketed unit: have it

Second bracketed unit: you don’t

 “So?”

“Well, how does it look?”

“Bitty.”

“No, no, that’s not the point.”

“So what’s the point?”

“Would you say that these two bracketed constituents do an equivalent job or have an equivalent status?”

“I don’t know; are they meant to?”

“Absolutely. Look what happens when I do this to my version.”

 Either [you have it], or [you don’t].

 First bracketed unit: you have it

Second bracketed unit: you don’t

“Are the bracketed constituents equivalent now?”

“I suppose; but does it really matter? As long as you can get what the stuff’s about …”

“Oh yes, yes, the famous proclamation.”

“What famous proclamation?”

“We know what we mean – the less you know, the more often you trot it out. I mean … I don’t mean … not you, obviously. But asymmetry is asymmetry: while some instances can be barely perceptible, others are more striking.”

“They are?”

“Yep. Take this; it’s from The Sunday Times.”

 “She’s either criticised for being too fat or too thin.”

 “Who?”

“Never mind who; just bracket off what comes after either and or.”

“Just a sec, just a sec; you mean that what they should have written is this?”

 She’s criticised for being either too fat or too thin.

 “Absolutely. But that was easy. Just look at this – from The Evening Standard.”

 “Nick should either be able to carry on investing via his Personal Equity Plan (PEP) or by using the tax shelter within the new Individual Savings Account (ISA).”

 “Hmm …”

“Brackets, brackets!”

“Just a sec, just a sec; you mean this?”

 Nick should be able to carry on investing either via his PEP or by using the tax shelter within the new ISA.

 “That’s it, that’s it! And this is from The Times Educational Supplement.”

 “Teachers would either be paid extra to supervise the sessions, or non-teaching staff would be employed.”

 “You mean this?”

 Either teachers would be paid extra to supervise the sessions, or non-teaching staff would be employed.

“By Jove, you’ve got it! But such asymmetry is extremely common; even professors of English stumble over their correlatives.”

Professors of English?”

“Yep; and all sorts of other luminaries. And it’s not only ‘either/or’ that are problematic.”

“Get away!”

“No, no, I’m serious. Other correlatives notorious for being misplaced are ‘neither/nor’, ‘both/and’, ‘not/but’, ‘not only/but also’ and ‘whether/or’.”

“Blimey!”

“So mind how you go and, when in doubt, just use brackets.”

“Hmm, I think I’d better.”

 

 

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