Tuesday, February 14, 2006


Either ... Or

Last year in a post entitled Either A, B, or C, Dennis at Campus Mawrtius objected to the statement "a noun is either masculine, feminine, or neuter" in an unidentified Greek textbook, presumably on the grounds that either ... or should express a choice between two alternatives, not more than two.

Merriam Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage (Springfield: Merriam-Webster, 2002), p. 293, discusses this question, and notes that the stricture against more than two is of recent date (only since the late 19th century). One of the counter-examples cited is from a careful stylist, Edmund Wilson, in The Wound and the Bow: "...the scantiest serious attention from either biographers, scholars, or critics."

Bergan and Cornelia Evans, in A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (New York: Random House, 1957), p. 151, weigh in as follows:
Either may be used with any number of words in a series, as in either past, present, or future. It could be argued that in a construction of this kind the comma represents the word or. But either may also be used simply with the meaning of "any one," as in either of these three. It has been used in this way for more than three hundred years. The construction is rare, but it is found in the writings of Poe, Emerson, O.W. Holmes, and is recognized as standard by the Oxford English Dictionary.
In the classical languages, instead of separate words like either and or, we find the same word repeated. In Latin we express either ... or as aut ... aut, -ve ... -ve, or vel ... vel, and in Greek as ἤ ... ἤ. An alternative epic form of is ἠέ. Grammarians give the oxymoronic name disjunctive conjunctions to these little words.

Richard John Cunliffe, A Lexicon of the Homeric Dialect (1924; rpt. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963), p. 179 (s.v. ἠέ), cites from Homer five examples of series involving more than two elements (Iliad 1.145, 7.179, 10.6; Odyssey 10.433, 15.84). I can add a couple more (Iliad 21.111; Odyssey 8.507). Odyssey 8.506-509 (on the Trojan horse, tr. A.T. Murray and George Dimcock) is an especially good example because it signals at the beginning that three elements are to follow:
Three counsels found favor in their minds: either to cleave the hollow timber with the pitiless bronze, or to drag it to the height and throw it down the rocks, or to let it stand as a great offering to propitiate the gods.

                τρίχα δέ σφισιν ἥνδανε βουλή,
ἠὲ διαπλῆξαι κοῖλον δόρυ νηλέι χαλκῷ,
ἢ κατὰ πετράων βαλέειν ἐρύσαντας ἐπ᾽ ἄκρης,
ἢ ἐάαν μέγ᾽ ἄγαλμα θεῶν θελκτήριον εἶναι.
A systematic search would doubtless uncover many more examples of this construction, in prose as well as in verse.

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