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Grammar and Usage

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Nor Man

The Appropriate Time to Use "Nor"

  Last week I had one of those nights where you wake up about 2:30 with an old song running through your head and it won’t stop, like Roy Orbison’s Blue Angel or *NSYNC’s Tearin’ Up My Heart. That night it was a song I hadn’t heard in a long, long, long while. If you remember it, you’re either dead, or you got all of the good genes in a family of eight. Here are the lyrics I remember that kept looping through my brain:

Joey asked me for a date
Wanted to take me out to skate
But I told Joey he would have to make
‘Rangements with Nor-man

Nor-man, uu uu uu uu uu uu
Nor-man, uu uu uu uu uu uu
Nor-man, Nor-man, my lu-uve.

I don’t know who wrote it; they’re probably still in the Witness Protection Program. But amidst all that pink “Norman” frosting lay a reminder of something that has bothered me for years: aside from hearing computer engineers talk about the word as the “inverse of an OR circuit,” rarely do we hear anyone discuss the correct usage of the word nor.

I’m not talking about neither/nor; you already get that, and you know we can use more than one nor:

There is nothing served about there; neither tea, nor coffee, nor lemonade, nor anything whatever . . . .”

But any other negative—no, not, never—we should follow with or, because, as Fowler says, “. . . [the negative’s] force is carried on.”:

Not a coupe nor or a convertible, the Targa is a T-top with a sliding glass roof.

There is no fee nor or obligation to be listed.

Neither Strunk nor White mentions nor in the original The Elements of Style, but editors of the classic have added this comment in recent editions.

Nor. Often used wrongly for or after negative expressions.

He cannot eat nor sleep.

As suitable rewrites, they offer:

He cannot eat or sleep.
He can neither eat nor sleep.
He cannot eat nor can he sleep.

In that last one, I would place a semicolon after eat.

In The Careful Writer, Theodore Bernstein contradicts Fowler and Strunk & White, but only narrowly, allowing the writer to choose: “By itself, nor may sometimes be substituted for or in a negative context to emphasize the negation":

He would not testify nor even appear in court.

Even often appears in this pattern anyway, so it already emphasizes. I still would use or.

All four of these renowned authorities would have tsked-tsked this Twain sentence from Roughing It:

. . . now we had no swallow-tail coats and white kid gloves to wear at Pawnee receptions in the Rocky Mountains, and no stovepipe hats nor or patent leather boots, nor or anything else necessary to make life calm and peaceful.

To keep it simple, I suggest never using nor where we can use or. But if we “wall off” the negative in the first phrase (as one grammarian put it), so it does not “carry on” to the second phrase, everyone agrees: We need to open the second phrase with nor, and often that requires a “slight change of arrangement”:

Her eyes showed no surprise, nor changed did they change their position in the slightest.

I would also turn that comma after surprise into a semicolon. Two more points: It’s okay to begin a sentence with nor:

Nor does his Complaint contain any hostile work environment claim.

And remember that nor is a “coordinating conjunction,” so we need to separate it from the previous clause with at least a comma; but again that separation always seems abrupt enough that I would use a semicolon.

He never held any ownership in the company,; nor was he a member of the board of directors.

That's all you need to know about nor, man. Thank you. I'm going back to sleep now.

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About Gary Kinder

Gary Kinder

WordRake founder Gary Kinder has taught over 1,000 writing programs for AMLAW 100 firms, Fortune 500 companies, and government agencies. He’s also a New York Times bestselling author. As a writing expert and coach, Gary was inspired to create WordRake when he noticed a pattern in writing errors that he thought he could address with technology.

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