In the midnight hour, she cried nor, nor, nor

About six months ago, we talked about “led”, a small word that causes big confusion. Today, we’re focusing on another little blighter: “nor”. This time it’s the usage, not the spelling, that creates so many headaches for writers.

WHEN DO WE USE “NOR”?

(1) Neither x nor y

Together, the words “neither” and “nor” are a correlative conjunction: a pair of words that joins two or more things. We use them in the construction “neither x nor y”, meaning “not x and also not y”. Here’s an example relating to Baz Luhrmann’s masterpiece Romeo + Juliet, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year:

Thirteen-year-old Natalie Portman was originally cast as Juliet, but neither Baz Luhrmann nor 20th Century Fox thought she looked old enough to play opposite 21-year-old DiCaprio.

“Neither” and “nor” can even be used when there are more than two elements listed. Just put “nor” before each additional element:

Although all three auditioned, neither Ewan McGregor nor Christian Bale nor John Leguizamo was successful in landing the part of Mercutio.

(2) As a coordinating conjunction

“Nor” can also be used to introduce the second of two negative independent clauses. Here’s an example:

Although he was nominated, Leonardo DiCaprio did not win Best Male Performance at the 1997 MTV Movie Awards, nor did he win Best On-Screen Duo with Claire Danes.

So we have two negative clauses: (1) Leo did not win this award, (2) nor did he win that award. And both clauses are independent – since they both contain a subject and a verb, they are grammatically complete and would work as standalone sentences. In fact, since they are independent clauses, it would also be OK to separate them with a full stop:

Although he was nominated, Leonardo DiCaprio did not win Best Male Performance at the 1997 MTV Movie Awards. Nor did he win Best On-Screen Duo with Claire Danes.

Note that when “nor” is used as a coordinating conjunction, the subject and verb that follow it are inverted. If we were making a positive statement, we would say “He did win”, with the subject (“He”) before the verb (“did”). But with the negative “nor”, we swap those two words around: “Nor did he win.”

(3) To negate a verb phrase that comes after another negative verb

This sounds more complicated than it is, so let’s take it one step at a time. First, a verb is negative when it is prefaced by “not” or “never”: “Leo did not co-star with Claire again”; “Leo never co-starred with Claire again”. Sometimes, those negative verbs are followed by a further negative in the form of a verb phrase – that is, a group of words that together function like a single verb:

Leo did not co-star with Claire again nor maintain a friendship with her.

In that sentence, “or” would also be correct – it’s your choice.

COMMON MISTAKES

(1) Using “nor” instead of “or”

I see this type of sentence a lot:

Luhrmann did not stick to Shakespeare’s exact dialogue nor to his plotline.

You can tell that it’s wrong because it doesn’t fit with any of the three usages I listed above: (1) there isn’t a “neither” in sight; (2) “to his plotline” is not an independent clause; and (3) “to his plotline” is not a verb phrase. The word should be “or” instead of “nor”.

(2) Bad parallelism

A common mistake with “neither x nor y” is failing to keep x and y grammatically parallel. Their structure should match, and they should perform the same role in the sentence. So it would be wrong to say this:

Leonardo DiCaprio had neither played Romeo nor any other Shakespeare character before.

X is “played Romeo” (verb + object) and y is “any other Shakespeare character” (object only) – they don’t match. The solution is to take the verb, “played”, out of the “neither x nor y” construction. That way, x and y will both be objects only, and “played” will rightly apply to both:

Leonardo DiCaprio had played neither Romeo nor any other Shakespeare character before.

(3) Verb disagreement

Did you notice that in our earlier example, we said “neither Ewan McGregor nor Christian Bale nor John Leguizamo was successful”, not “were successful”? Where “neither x nor y” is followed by a verb, that verb should agree only with the word/s closest to it – in this case, the singular “John Leguizamo”.

In a nutshell

Always use “nor”: (1) with “neither” as a correlative conjunction (“neither Baz Luhrmann nor 20th Century Fox thought”); and (2) to introduce the second of two negative independent clauses (“nor did he win Best On-Screen Duo”).

Use “nor” or “or” to negate a verb phrase that comes after another negative verb (“did not co-star with Claire again nor maintain a friendship with her”) – but “or” would also work here.

In any other context, only “or” is correct.