A month ago, I gave a comic introduction about me in my English class. During my flow of words, I told, "...I have neither a brother nor a sister". Everyone laughed at me all of a sudden. The professor corrected me, "You shouldn't use this construct in this sentence and started teasing me, etc..."

He asked another fellow student to correct me. That guy said, "I have no siblings" which was declared as the right way. None of 'em said why can't I use "Neither... nor" and why should I use a new word..?

It's bugging me for a while. Can someone explain me?

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    I have neither a brother nor a sister is perfectly fine, although most Americans would probably say "I have no brothers or sisters" in that situation. – Kevin Mar 29 '13 at 16:23
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    Your teacher is very wrong, and should be reprimanded, or sacked... – Greenonline Sep 22 '15 at 9:14

There's nothing grammatically wrong with what you said, and there's nothing stylistically wrong. However, if I were to hear someone say "I have neither a brother nor a sister", I'd expect something like "but I do have a {dog/cat/hamster/gerbil}" next.

I don't know where your English teacher is from, but most of the American- and British-speakers I know would never say anything so formal as ""I have no siblings". Siblings is too formal and scientific-technical a word for most of us. Most native speakers would probably say "I don't have any brothers {and / or[CHOOSE ONE]} sisters".

Everyone has their own idea of what is proper to say and what the proper way to say it in any particular context. There are no stringent rules in English about these types of idiomatic expressions. I, for example, would probably say "I have no brothers or sisters", rather than "I don't have any...". I might, if a little tipsy, say something like "I'm brotherless and sisterless, but not dogless", but that would be a weak attempt at humor.

I'd suggest that "I don't have any brothers or sisters" is the norm for most native speakers, and I recommend that that's the expression to use, but I'm sure that others will chime in here if it isn't for them.

  • That's amazing Bill. Thanks for your answer. So, that "neither-nor" construct is just a continuous statement. I mean, if I use that in a sentence, then there's a probability for a following statement. Is that tradition a must? or a choice..? – Waffle's Crazy Peanut Mar 29 '13 at 8:02
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    @CrazyBuddy: It's just a choice. It's a mouthful, even for a native speaker, so most native speakers won't use it as the normal way to say "I don't have any brothers or sisters". People who like formal English will, and people who want to make a joke will add something to "I have neither a brother nor a sister" for a laugh. It's not a tradition, just my reaction to the expression. Context determines what needs to be said. If someone says, "Well, then give it to your brother or your sister", then "I have neither a brother nor a sister" is quite appropriate and needs no add-on phrase. – user264 Mar 29 '13 at 8:08
  • Another way to say it would be, "I have no brothers or sisters." That said, if I heard someone say, "I have neither a brother nor a sister," I wouldn't laugh at that person's statement. Incidentally, your comment reminds me of a famous brainteaser: Brothers and sisters I have none, but this man's father is my father's son. (No, we don't usually talk that way; that statement is worded that way just for the rhyme. So, yes, as Bill said, our final choice of wording depends on context more than anything.) – J.R. Mar 29 '13 at 9:11
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    +1 for "only child," which seems far more natural than "no siblings." I'm still shaking my head in bewilderment at everyone chuckling at the neither/nor construct, yet nodding so approvingly at "no siblings," deeming it the "right" way to say it. To be honest, it sounds like a scene from comic skit – and the punch line isn't "neither a brother nor a sister," it's the teacher declaring, "Yessssss, that's the right way to say it." – J.R. Mar 29 '13 at 9:26

I wouldn't have belittled your original wording, although Bill's done an admirable job of explaining why it might sound a little bit off. (Not wrong, just a little off, if that makes sense – and I'm not so sure that's even true).

I checked online to see if I could find some authoritative source that might shed light on this, but I came away even more confused than when I started. Maybe I should've just stuck with Bill's answer.

I did find this at one website:

When using "neither" in a sentence, you are saying not the first object and not the second object are behaving in a certain way. For example:

Neither Corie nor Bob went to the play. (Corie isn't going to the play. Bob isn't going to the play.)

That made me think, "Maybe this shows which side of the verb neither/nor are supposed to be on. Maybe it's okay to say "Neither X nor Y have Z", but not "Z has neither X nor Y." But then my next source contradicted that theory:

A “nor” usually follows a “neither” when they're used in the same sentence. For example, you might say, “I like neither hot dogs nor mustard.”

This made me wonder: if the Grammar Girl can say, "I like neither hot dogs nor mustard," then why can't Crazy Buddy say, "I have neither a brother nor a sister."

In short, although I wouldn't say that "I have neither a brother nor a sister" is a very natural way to say it, I can't find anything wrong with it grammatically. Moreover, as I said in my comments, I don't find "I have no siblings" to be dramatically better than your original wording. While I might agree with your teacher that "I have no siblings" is a better way, I can't agree that it's the right way, while yours is a wrong way.

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    Neither neither nor nor but but is to be used. This is irrelevant, I just had to write it down. :) It's kind of funny – SmokerAtStadium Mar 29 '13 at 10:05
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    Cool... Then, I've to tease my professor somewhere else :P – Waffle's Crazy Peanut Mar 29 '13 at 10:51

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