Some Tricky Little English Words and How To Use Them Well

A Few Troublesome Words and How To Use Them Effectively
English is not an easy language to master. Speaking it can certainly be challenging when it is not your native language, and writing it can be akin to a nightmare, even for native speakers, especially when that writing involves creating accomplished scholarly prose that discusses complex ideas in engaging ways. Academic and scientific writing must achieve the highest standards of formal English and avoid all grammatical and syntactical errors in order to communicate complicated data and sophisticated ideas successfully. Even when the basics are understood, however, and most sentences can be constructed without mistakes, there are certain troublesome words in English that are especially tricky to use correctly, and such words can undermine the best efforts of even the most conscientious writers. ‘Both,’ ‘each,’ ‘either,’ ‘neither,’ ‘nor’ and ‘only’ are among these words, so a few tips on their use may prove helpful.

‘Both’ represents a plural concept and always refers to two things, not one or three or more. It therefore takes a plural verb, as it does in the following two examples: ‘both a table and a figure were included in the article’ and ‘both of them are useful for understanding the author’s meaning.’

‘Each’ is used to single out one of two or more things, so unlike ‘both,’ it is a singular concept and takes a singular verb. ‘Each of the three figures shows something different’ is therefore correct, whereas ‘each of them are colourful’ is incorrect and should read ‘each of them is colourful.’

Although ‘either’ and ‘neither’ are generally used when talking about two things, they are singular concepts as well and should therefore appear with singular verbs. This means that ‘either a table or a figure was included in the blog post’ and ‘neither one is particularly helpful’ are both correct. A ‘neither . . . nor’ construction also takes a singular verb, so ‘neither the table nor the figure was helpful’ is correct, and remember that ‘or’ should not be used instead of ‘nor’ in a ‘neither . . . nor’ construction.
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‘Neither,’ ‘either’ and ‘both’ must be carefully positioned in a sentence to achieve balance and clarity of meaning while avoiding repetition, so correct phrasing would be ‘the details affect neither him nor her.’ Were you to use ‘the details neither affect him nor her,’ the correct wording would actually be ‘the details neither affect him nor affect her,’ which is unnecessarily wordy as well as awkward. If ‘both’ were used in a similar situation, the correct wording would be ‘the details affect both him and her,’ not ‘the details both affect him and her.’ Again the correct version of the second would require the repeated use of ‘affect,’ so that construction would only be the right choice were you writing something a little different, such as ‘the details both affect him and terrify her.’

‘Only’ can be placed where it sounds best in a sentence unless there is a possibility of ambiguity or confusion, in which case it should be carefully positioned to clarify the meaning. ‘Laundry only washed on Fridays,’ for instance, could mean ‘only laundry is washed on Fridays’ or ‘laundry is washed on Fridays only’ or perhaps even something like ‘laundry is washed, but not dried, on Fridays.” It is therefore wise to consider all the placement and semantic options as you are writing and choose the one that most effectively expresses your intentions.

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