Correlative Conjunctions

View Worksheet

What are they?

Correlative conjunctions are pairs of conjunctions that link words, phrases or clauses. They must always connect two elements that are grammatically similar, meaning that the same structure applies. In other words, nouns are linked to nouns, adjectives to adjectives, prepositional phrases to prepositional phrases; regardless of the part of speech or the type of phrase or clause, they must stay grammatical equals. Below are some common correlative conjunctions, or pairs:

  • as – as
  • both – and
  • either – or
  • neither – nor
  • not – but
  • not only – but also
  • whether – or

Parallel structure

When you use correlative conjunctions, you must maintain parallel structure; in other words, the two connected elements within the sentence must stay equal. Most of the time you can correct any mismatched grammatical elements that prevent parallel structure by simply adding a word to create the same type of phrase or by rearranging how a sentence is worded. Consider the following examples:

Incorrect: Christmas is a time not only for exchanging gifts, but also spending time with family.

Correct: Christmas is a time not only for exchanging gifts, but also for spending time with family.

In the above sentences, the correlative conjunction pair is “not only…but also.” The incorrect example does not maintain parallel structure because the conjunction pair is connecting “for exchanging gifts” and “spending time with family.” The first phrase is a prepositional phrase (starts with the preposition “for”), and the second phrase is not. To create parallel structure where the two phrases are grammatically equal, you must change the second phrase to a prepositional phrase, too. Therefore, in the correct example, “for” is added in front of “spending time with family.”

Incorrect: It was both a very long test and difficult.

Correct:

  • The test was both very long and difficult.
  • It was both a very long test and a difficult one.

In the above examples, “both…and” is the correlative conjunction pair. “Very long test” is a noun phrase that contains an adjective, and “difficult” is an adjective by itself. To correct for parallelism, the sentence is reworded one of two ways. Putting “the test” as the subject of the sentence and using “very long” and “difficult” creates parallelism because both of the connected words are adjectives. Likewise, adding “one” to the end of the sentence creates parallelism because it turns both elements into noun phrases that contain an adjective.

Pronoun agreement

When using the correlative conjunctions of “neither…nor” and “either…or,” you must maintain pronoun-antecedent agreement. Remember that an antecedent is what the pronoun is replacing. Sometimes correlative conjunction pairs connect two antecedents and a pronoun is used later in the sentence. The second antecedent must always agree with the pronoun that follows when certain correlative pairs are used. If the antecedent is plural, the pronoun must stay plural. If the antecedent is singular, the pronoun must stay singular. Consider the following examples:

Incorrect:

  • Neither Brittney nor the sisters understood why her parents said no.
  • Either the cousins or Sasha should speak up when they disagree.

Correct:

  • Neither Brittney nor the sisters understood why their parents said no.
  • Either the cousins or Sasha should speak up when she disagrees.

In the incorrect examples, “sisters” is plural, so the singular pronoun “her” is not in agreement with the second antecedent (sisters). Likewise, “Sasha” is singular, so the plural pronoun of “they” does not agree with the second antecedent (Sasha). To correct, the second antecedent in the first sentence (sisters) requires the plural pronoun of “they.” On the same note, the second sentence uses the singular pronoun of “she” because the second antecedent (Sasha) is singular.

Verb agreement

In the same way that the pronoun-antecedent agreement is maintained, the subject-verb agreement must stay in alignment as well. When the correlative pair connects two subjects, the use of “neither…nor” or “either…or” requires that the verb is singular when the second subject is singular and plural when the second subject is plural. Consider the following examples:

Incorrect: Neither the male students or Joanne hand in papers in a timely manner.

Correct: Neither the male students or Joanne hands in papers in a timely manner.

Because the second subject is singular, the verb takes the singular form (hands). If the subjects were switched with “the male students” appearing as the second subject, the plural form of the verb (hand) is used.