By Geraldine Woods

Most joining words fly solo. Single words — and, but, nor, or, because, although, since, and so on — join sentences or parts of sentences. Some joining words, however, come in pairs. (In grammarspeak, joining words are called conjunctions. Double conjunctions are called correlatives. Forget these facts immediately! Just remember how to use joining words properly.) Here are some of the most frequently used pairs:

  • Not only/but also
  • Either/or
  • Neither/nor
  • Whether/or
  • Both/and

Some of these words show up in sentences without their partners. No problem! Just make sure that when they do act as conjunction pairs, they behave properly. Here’s the rule: Whatever fills in the blanks after each half of a pair of conjunctions must have the same grammatical identity. The logic here is that conjunctions have partners, and so do the things they join. You may join two nouns, two sentences, two prepositional phrases — two whatevers! Just make sure the things that you join match. Check out this example:

Not only Larry but also his bride yearned for a day at the beach. (The conjunction pair joins two nouns, Larry and his bride.)

Either you or I must break the news about the fake diamond to Larry. (The conjunction pair joins two pronouns, you and I.)

Nouns and pronouns are equals when it comes to parallelism. Because pronouns take the place of nouns, you may mix them without ill effect:

Neither Ralph nor he has brought a proper present to Larry’s wedding. (The conjunction pair joins a noun, Ralph, and a pronoun, he.)

Here’s another example:

Both because he stole the garter and because he lost the ring, Roger is no longer welcome as best man. (This conjunction pair joins two subject–verb combinations.)

To help you spot parallelism errors in sentences with conjunction pairs, here are a few mismatches, along with their corrections:

NOT PARALLEL: Either Lulu will go with Larry to the bachelor party or to the shower, but she will not attend both.

WHY IT’S NOT PARALLEL: The first italicized section is a subject–verb combination. The second italicized section is a prepositional phrase.

PARALLEL: Lulu will go with Larry either to the bachelor party or to the shower, but she will not attend both. (Now you’ve got two prepositional phrases.)

NOT PARALLEL: Both her lateness and that she was dressed in white leather insulted the royal couple.

WHY IT’S NOT PARALLEL: First italicized section is a noun, but the second is a subject–verb combination.

PARALLEL BUT A LITTLE REPETITIVE: Both the fact that she was late and the fact that she was dressed in white leather insulted the royal couple. (Now the italicized sections are both subject–verb combinations.)

PARALLEL AND MORE CONCISE: Both her lateness and her white leather clothing insulted the royal couple. (Now the italicized sections are both nouns with a couple of descriptions attached — a more concise solution.)

Which sentence is correct?

A. Lulu neither mocked Larry nor his bride about the fact that the bride’s mother has a slight but noticeable moustache.

B. Lulu mocked neither Larry nor his bride about the fact that the bride’s mother has a slight but noticeable moustache.

Answer: Sentence B is correct. In sentence A, neither precedes a verb (mocked) but nor precedes a noun (his bride). In sentence B, neither precedes a noun (Larry) and so does nor (his bride).

Try another. Which sentence is best?

A. Both the way she danced and the way she sang convinced Michael to award Lola a starring role in Michael’s new musical, The Homework Blues.

B. Both the way she danced and her superb singing convinced Michael to award Lola a starring role in Michael’s new musical, The Homework Blues.

C. Both her graceful dancing and superb singing convinced Michael to award Lola a starring role in Michael’s new musical, The Homework Blues.

Answer: Sentence C is best. Two nouns, dancing and singing, are linked by the conjunctions. True, sentence A is grammatically correct because a noun–subject–verb combination (the way she danced, the way she sang) follows both parts of the conjunction pair. However, sentence A is a little wordy; the way appears twice. In sentence B, the first half of the conjunction pair (both) is followed by a noun (way) and then a subject–verb combination (she danced). The second part of the conjunction pair (and) is followed only by a noun (singing).

When you see a conjunction pair, underline (mentally) whatever follows each half of the pair. If they match, move on. If not, revise.