Obsolete syntax

From David W. Blight, in a NYT op-ed piece, “Forgetting Why We Remember” (5/30/11), a remarkable piece on the history of Memorial Day and Decoration Day:

At the end of the Civil War, Americans faced a formidable challenge: how to memorialize 625,000 dead soldiers, Northern and Southern. As Walt Whitman mused, it was “the dead, the dead, the dead — our dead — or South or North, ours all” that preoccupied the country.

The Whitman quote has correlative or … or (boldfaced above), where now we would use correlative either … or or whether … or — a perfectly reasonable marking strategy, with identical markers for the two parallel conjuncts, but a scheme that seems to have vanished in the 150 years since the Civil War.

I believe it’s the case that not only correlative or … or, but also correlative nor … nor (invented example: We favored nor North nor South ‘We favored neither North nor South’) and correlative and … and (invented example: We saw and Northern and Southern dead ‘We saw both Northern and Southern dead’) used to be possible, but they’ve become obsolete. (Searching for examples is forbiddingly difficult, though I’m hoping that there’s some historical research on the topic.)

Correlatives are a rich source of variation. Here are some of the topics I took up in a Language Log posting “Whether either” back in 2007:

concessive either in either … or not (“Either Hillary likes it or not, Black voters are going to wake up”)

correlative either … or either (“Either you swim or either you fade”)

correlative whether … or whether (“whether you’re a mother or whether you’re a brother”) [I have no trouble with these, but they displease some]

Some others from my files:

correlative either … nor under negation (“Can’t access the internet using either IE8 nor Firefox 3.5.2”) — a combination of either … or and neither … nor

[unmarked] … or either (“If you need support on this item or either you don’t have the PDF reader software,…”); [unmarked] … or is of course completely standard

correlative both … as well as — objected to by some

correlative both … and also — objected to by at least one handbook

[unmarked (but negative)] … and nor (“Nowhere on the packaging does it state that I’d picked up an arabic version and nor did your distributors in Bahrain care to mention it”)

[unmarked (but negative)] … but nor (“He did not stand up to greet me but nor did he hesitate to shake my hand”)


4 Responses to “Obsolete syntax”

  1. Chris Says:

    Spanish does “or” (o) and “nor” (ni) this way; I wonder if English is unusual in having separate words for “either” and “or”? I’ve heard first language Spanish speakers make the mistake in English of saying things like “Or one or the other”.

  2. Correlatives « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] up on my posting on “Obsolete syntax”, about parallel correlative coordination (in that case, or … […]

  3. Correlative coordinators in parallel « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] more on or … or and its kin (previous postings here and here), from OED3. None of them is current, but or … or and nor … nor seem to have […]

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: