Or or And in Negative Sentences?

Prejudices, it is well known, are most difficult to eradicate from the heart whose soil has never been loosened or fertilised by education…”

~ Charlotte Brontë

The idea for this post came to me when I was editing some lessons for our new site, Sprout English (a site for young learners that is coming very soon—so excited about it!). In those lessons, sentences like I don’t like tomatoes, and I don’t like celery, either were used. In this case, and is used, but I remembered how or must often be used in negative sentences such as I don’t like tomatoes or celery. This used to confuse my students so much! They’d naturally want to write I don’t like tomatoes and celery, because they didn’t like both things. This kind of question always appears in tests like the TOEIC, too. So how do we explain it to students?

Or = not joining independent clauses

In English, or is used in negative sentences to join two or more nouns, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, verbs, dependent clauses, etc. Negative sentences include the use of adverbs like not or never.

Trick #1: Tell students that if not is used once, they will most likely need or.

Examples:

  • I don’t like apples or oranges.
  • English isn’t quick or easy to learn.
  • My friend doesn’t want pork, beef, or fish for dinner.
  • He never reads books or watches TV after class.
  • I didn’t say that you could eat my food or that your friends could come over.

Trick #2: It might help to tell students to think of the full conjunction pairs of both…and and either…or.

Examples:

  • She likes (both) apples and oranges.
  • She doesn’t like (either) apples or oranges. (We would never say She doesn’t like either apples and oranges.)

And = joining independent clauses

In English, and is used in negative sentences to join two independent clauses.

Trick #3: Tell students that if not is used twice, they will most likely need and.

Examples:

  • I don’t like basketball, and I don’t like volleyball, either.
  • Mr. Lutz doesn’t want to meet today and he doesn’t want to meet tomorrow, either.

Point out to your students that while these constructions are possible, they’re quite long and cumbersome, and native speakers often prefer the shorter versions with or (I don’t like basketball or volleyball; Mr. Lutz doesn’t want to meet today or tomorrow.)

Exceptions:

1) We can use and when it’s not joining independent clauses to show that the items are joined (act as one unit—e.g., peanut butter and jelly). To avoid confusion, I recommend only pointing this out to higher-level students. Compare the difference:

  • I don’t like peanut butter or jelly. (I don’t like peanut butter. I don’t like jelly.)
  • I don’t like peanut butter and jelly. (I don’t like peanut butter and jelly together, but I might like them separately.)

2) Don’t forget that even though words such as hate or dislike have a negative meaning, not isn’t used, so and is used to join two or more parts of speech.

  • I dislike apples and oranges. (I dislike apples or oranges is incorrect.)
  • She hates rain and snow. (She hates rain or snow is incorrect.)

I hope your students aren’t confused or defeated by these conjunctions anymore!

Tanya

24 comments

Leave a Comment ↓

  1. tzvetanovplamen@hotmail.com'

    Plamen says:

    Aug 29, 2017 at 6:18 am

    Hi, Tanya! Your comments are very useful. When we use adjectives with negative meaning for example as unhappy do we have to apply the rules for or/and for the negative sentences? She is unhappy in professional and/or private side of her life.
    Secondly, if we use the adjective NO do we have to apply the rules for negation and or/and. There is no evidence of a nerve disorder in the upper or/and lower limbs.
    Finaly, when we use both /which implies and/ and either /which implies or/, do we have follow the same rules as and/or in negation? She is not happy in both/either side of her life. Many thanks!

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Sep 01, 2017 at 4:00 pm

      Hi Plamen,

      Thanks for the kind words. To answer your questions:

      1. The rules in this post don’t apply for negative adjectives. The correct sentence is: “She is unhappy in (both) the professional and private side of her life.”

      2. With “no,” the rules do apply. The correct sentence is: “There is no evidence of a nerve disorder in the upper or lower limbs.”

      3. With “not,” we should use “either,” not “both.” The correct sentence is: “She is not happy in either side of her life.” or “She is not happy in either her professional life or her personal life.”

      Reply

  2. mgb@live.jp'

    Ghiaath says:

    May 31, 2017 at 5:33 am

    Hi Tanya,
    Could you please tell me if this is acceptable.

    He didn’t help his wife with the housework, take care of the baby, or even answer the phone.

    I want to use ‘or’ in the middle too, but there is one befor the 3rd part. Is there a better way to express the above?

    Thank you for your help!

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      May 31, 2017 at 12:47 pm

      Hi Ghiaath, your sentence is just fine. The “or” is in the correct spot, and I wouldn’t recommend using two (it’s repetitive and unnecessary). :)

      Reply

  3. sifayouknow@yahoo.com'

    Sandy says:

    May 22, 2017 at 3:20 pm

    Hi, I would just like to ask is this part of this statement “provided that the member is not i default of this agreement and subject to the terms and conditions there of,…”

    I understand you’re not a lawyer and I’m not asking you for legal advice this is not and I understand that you cannot give me legal advice. A lot of people a lot of people do not understand and they get confused by this part of the statement. I say that the “not” in the sentence applies to the part of the sentence before the “and” and the part of the sentence after the “and”.

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      May 23, 2017 at 1:07 pm

      Hi Sandy,

      Yes, please don’t take this reply as legal advice. You are correct that your example sentence would be read by most people the way you described, with the “not” applying only to the part of the sentence before the “and.” So provided that the member is not in default of this agreement and provided that the member is subject to the terms…”

      Reply

  4. gbscai@ybb.ne.jp'

    Mitsu says:

    Apr 11, 2017 at 10:12 am

    Q1 「臨床症状として、息切れ、喀血、胸痛、水泡音は認められなかった。」の英訳のうち、
    医薬文書として最もふさわしいものは以下1~3のどれか。
    (Which sentence among 1 to 4 is the best one for a official medical document in order to mean as below?
    “[Findings for] Clinical symptoms:
    Shortness of breath: none
    Hemoptysis: none
    Chest pain: none
    Rhonchi: none”)

    1. Clinical symptoms including shortness of breath, hemoptysis, chest pain, and rhonchi were not noted.

    2. No clinical symptoms of shortness of breath, hemoptysis, chest pain, and rhonchi were noted.

    3. No clinical symptoms of shortness of breath, hemoptysis, chest pain, or rhonchi were noted.

    4. Any clinical symptoms of shortness of breath, hemoptysis, chest pain, and rhonchi were not noted.

    5. Any clinical symptoms of shortness of breath, hemoptysis, chest pain, or rhonchi were not noted.

    Q2. Q1 の選択肢 2 において、「息切れ、喀血、胸痛、水泡音」が同格とならず、「No」が「symptoms」と「rhonchi」にかかるように読める可能性はあるか。
    (In the sentence “2” of Q1 items, can 4 words of “shortness of breath”, “hemoptysis”, “chest pain”, and “rhonchi”
    be regarded as not in the same rank, like a sentence saying “No clinical symptoms or rhonchi were noted.” ?)

    Q3. Q1 の選択肢 3 において、「息切れ、喀血、胸痛」が認められず、「水泡音」が認められた、と読める可能性はあるか。
    (In the sentence “3” of Q1 items, can the sentence be regarded as “present: shortness of breath, hemoptysis, and chest pain; none: rhonchi” ?)

    Q4. Q1 の選択肢 1 において、「including」を使用してもよいか、また、「of」よりもふさわしいといえるか。
    (In the sentence “1” of Q1 items, is the use of word “including” correct? Is it better than “of”?)

    I beg you will sympathize with me, and it would be extremely appreciated if you give me a helpful advice.
    Sincerest regards,

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Apr 11, 2017 at 6:30 pm

      Hi Mitsu,

      A1. Sentences 1 and 3 are both correct. I think sentence 3 sounds the best (“No clinical symptoms of shortness of breath, hemoptysis, chest pain, or rhonchi were noted.”). Note that sentences 2, 4, and 5 don’t sound natural, in my opinion.

      A2. I’d say that sentence 2 reads the same as sentence 3, but the “and” sounds like an error to me.

      A3. No. Sentence 3 reads as “All four of these symptoms were not present.” So there were no symptoms of shortness of breath / no symptoms of hemoptysis / no symptoms of chest pain / no symptoms of rhonchi. If this is your meaning, sentence 3 works well.

      A4. Yes, “including” sounds natural in sentence 1 and sounds better than “of,” especially because you wouldn’t want to have “of” twice so close together (“Clinical symptoms OF shortness OF breath…”).

      Hope that helps!

      Reply

  5. fx6893@yahoo.com'

    PPP says:

    Feb 05, 2017 at 2:46 am

    Great article. One concern: all your examples occur in the predicate. Do your tricks apply to the subject? And does this affect the subject/verb agreement? Can the following sentence be improved without using the formal “nor”?:

    John or Mike isn’t coming to the party.

    Thanks!

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Feb 06, 2017 at 3:35 pm

      Good question! The rules above do not apply to the subject of a sentence. So your example, “John or Mike isn’t coming to the party” is not correct. Instead, we could say:

      Neither John nor Mike is coming to the party.
      or
      John and Mike aren’t coming to the party.

      To help students with subject-verb agreement, tell them to think of it as “neither ONE of them IS coming” for the first example, and “THEY ARE not coming” for the second. Thanks for your question!

      Reply

      • fx6893@yahoo.com'

        PPP says:

        Feb 07, 2017 at 11:11 pm

        Ah, thanks for the extra help!

        Reply

  6. tiensinchan@gmail.com'

    Nina says:

    Nov 02, 2015 at 9:48 am

    Thanks. That’s very helpful.
    However, I do have some situation here:
    1. She doesn’t have a diary and an address book, but has some pens in her bag.
    2. She doesn’t have a diary or an address book, but has some pens in her bag.
    Can I say both sentences are correct? And how can I explain that both sentences are acceptable in what context, please?
    I hope I’m not asking an invalid question.

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Nov 04, 2015 at 1:33 pm

      Hi Nina,

      No questions are ever invalid! I’m glad you asked this one, because it can be confusing.

      Grammatically speaking, your second sentence with “or” is correct (“She doesn’t have a diary or an address book, but she has some pens in her bag.”) The meaning is that she doesn’t have a diary and she doesn’t have an address book. (Note that I’ve added a second “she” because it is more common to include a subject after a comma, especially with a switch from negative to positive.)

      The first sentence doesn’t sound as good. Native speakers naturally use “or” with negative sentences, although some people can and do easily make this mistake. It’s not a huge problem because the meaning is clear (and the meaning would be the same as the second sentence, that she doesn’t have a diary and she doesn’t have an address book). However, I wouldn’t teach that first sentence to my students.

      Hope that helps! :)

      Reply

  7. tannaz66_1213@yahoo.com'

    Niloo says:

    Jun 01, 2015 at 5:21 pm

    Good..thanks
    I was confused..thanks for your good description

    Reply

  8. delamerbleu@gmail.com'

    wing says:

    May 22, 2015 at 5:35 pm

    thank you very much for this. It is very helpful. Can the same rule apply to positive sentences? For example, is it correct to say, ‘I like apples or oranges”?

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Jun 02, 2015 at 11:06 pm

      Hi Wing,

      Good question! No, it’s not possible to use “or” for a positive sentence when you mean “both.” In positive sentences, “or” is used for a CHOICE.

      Examples:
      – Which do you prefer, apples or oranges?
      – Do you like apples or oranges better?
      – Do you want apples or oranges for dessert?

      The answer will only be one of the two nouns.
      Hope that helps! :)

      Reply

  9. hamidlg@yahoo.com'

    hamid says:

    Jan 08, 2014 at 6:54 am

    what about “nor”?
    do you think that we should use “nor” with negative sentences ?

    I don’t like apples nor oranges

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Jan 08, 2014 at 6:47 pm

      Good question, Hamid! You can use “nor” in negative sentences, but remember that it’s quite formal and not commonly used nowadays. When you use “nor” you almost always use “neither”, and you will NEVER use “not”. Think of the “n” in the words “neither” and “nor” as already having the meaning of “not”.

      All of the following examples have the same meaning. #1 is the most common and #3 is the least common.

      1. I don’t like apples or oranges.
      2. I don’t like either apples or oranges.
      3. I like neither apples nor oranges.

      Hope that helps!
      Tanya :)

      Reply

  10. laogui32@yahoo.com'

    laogui says:

    Dec 29, 2013 at 8:46 am

    I was correcting an entry at italki.com, in which the (Chinese) student had written ‘… without electronic toys and smartphones’ and asked why I had corrected her ‘and’ to ‘or’, was it because of the ‘without’ and yes of course it was; but how to express this as a rule of grammar, and how many such words are there?

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Dec 30, 2013 at 8:53 pm

      Hi Laogui,

      You bring up a very good point. English has other negative words besides the usual “not” and “never”. The rule remains the same, though: Use “or”, not “and”, if there is a negative word in the sentence (that refers to the items being joined). Other such words include no, none, nothing, either, and, as you mentioned, without. I’m sure there are more, but that’s all that are coming to me at the moment. If anyone can think of words to add to this list, please leave a comment! :)

      Reply

  11. tanya@tbtk.net'

    Tanya says:

    Aug 02, 2013 at 9:41 pm

    Thanks, Neide and Tracey! And it’s very true…I learned so much about English when I started teaching it. We’re not usually aware of all the grammar rules in our own language until we have to explain them to someone else.

    Reply

  12. traceyfisher2002@yahoo.co.uk'

    TraceySmiler says:

    Aug 02, 2013 at 8:30 pm

    Very enlightening. It’s funny the things we just do naturally, often without being taught, and don’t recognise in our own language until they’re pointed out. Very helpful and interesting.

    Reply

  13. neidemil@uol.com.br'

    neide says:

    Aug 01, 2013 at 4:42 pm

    Very clarifying! Tks!

    Reply

Leave a Comment