When to Use Nor (3 Useful Fixes for Writers)

by | Aug 31, 2021

Knowing when to use nor in your writing might not seem too important, but it’s a subtlety worth studying.

Writing in the English language can be a bit of a challenge even if English is your first language. There are so many grammatical rules that fluctuate depending on the context of a sentence, such as “I” before “e” except after “c.”

Then we have those difficult phrases. One example is “I couldn’t care less,” which has been misspoken so frequently it now seems acceptable to say “I could care less” (although listeners understand it to mean the speaker could not care less).

People often say “daughter-in-laws” when the correct form is “daughters-in-law.” 

And then there is figuring out when to use “a” and “an” when the following word starts with a silent consonant.

These are only a few grammar rules that are easy to confuse. As writers, it’s important to understand grammar rules, just as it’s important to understand writing rules, so you know when, how, and if to break them. 

We learned many of them in school, but if you’ve been out of school for any length of time, or even if you’re still in school and feel inundated with grammar rules, brief refreshers can go a long way in helping your writing shine. 

Before we begin, please note: Great writing doesn’t always follow grammar rules.

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  • To feel real and ensure your writing is easy to read, dialogue should not follow all grammar rules, unless a specific character would speak in perfect grammar 
  • In fiction, fragments are acceptable, as long as they add to the story and do not distract (for instance, writers often use fragments to make a point or in description)
  • In nonfiction, voice is especially important. If your voice feels more natural and is less grammatical, that’s acceptable. 
  • In creative writing, use grammar rules to add to your story, not to distract from it. 

To talk about the word nor, we should first briefly talk about the word or.

According to The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition:

“If this [or] conjunction joins singular nouns functioning as subjects, the very should be singular {cash or online payment is acceptable}.”

However, the use of nor in a sentence is different. 

How Do You Use Nor In A Sentence?

When using the word nor in a sentence, The Chicago Manual of Style states:

  • “This word, when functioning as the subject of a clause takes a singular verb.”
  • “A neither-nor construction should frame grammatically parallel expressions.”
  • “A simple neither-nor construction should have only two elements.”

Where To Use Nor

Sometimes it helps to see examples of usage. When using nor in a sentence where the word functions as the subject of a clause it will take a singular verb. 

Example: Neither of the dogs were given a treat. 

However, neither-nor should frame grammatically parallel expressions.

Example: Neither the lake being rough nor the boat running out of gas seemed to shake her calm demeanor. 

But, as The Chicago Manual of Style states: “A simple neither-nor construction should have only two elements.” 

Example: “Neither cream nor sugar.” 

It is acceptable to use nor for emphasis in a series. For instance, “Neither ketchup nor mustard nor cheese nor lettuce could make the burger tasty.” 

Mistakes When Using Nor

It’s important to maintain the correct usage when writing, especially if you’re writing academic journals, publishing for a magazine, or running a column on a website, etc. 

In creative writing, your correct usage of nor may look a little different. 

Below are examples to help provide clarity on the topic.

Example, fiction: “I didn’t want to go to the farmer’s market, nor the beach, or home.” 

If you have a character who doesn’t understand grammar this could work. However, if this line of dialogue is said by a college English professor, this sentence would not work. Instead, you would want to change it to the grammatically correct version.

Corrected: “I didn’t want to go to the farmer’s market, nor the beach, nor home.” 

Context is key. 

Example, framing grammatically parallel expressions: “Neither the sun being hot or the water evaporating would help the drought.” 

Corrected: “Neither the sun being hot nor the water evaporating would help the drought.” 

Example, a simple neither-nor construction: “He wanted neither cookies or cake.” 

Corrected: “He wanted neither cookies nor cake.” 

The more you look at examples the more you will familiarize yourself with this rule. It will take practice, but writing takes practice, and the more you write, the more you will feel comfortable with it. 

Remember, it’s crucial to know when to use nor in a sentence so whatever you are writing, you communicate most effectively. 

If you don’t know the rule, it will be more difficult to break it when you need to. For instance, if you have a line of dialogue from a two-year-old and his use of nor is perfect, your story may lack the ring of truth. 

But, if you are writing for a medical journal and don’t know when to use nor you will likely lose credibility. 

One instance breaks the rule, one follows the rule, but both are done with intention. Both are accomplished because the writer knew the rule

Knowing the rules allows you the ability to use them well and break them well. The more you know how to handle grammar rules, the better your writing will be. 

Now that you have examples to work from, approach your writing with confidence, get back to the keyboard, and keep at it. 

You’ll feel more accomplished, you’ll be able to go further in your writing, and your readers will be able to turn pages faster as you wield these grammar rules exactly as you intend to. 

So get back to it, write well, and remember: Writing well sometimes means breaking those rules. 

Choose wisely, and know there’s always time for more edits

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