Usage and Grammar
Q. Hi CMOS—I have a question about sentences using either/neither. For example, “They neither discussed the case nor the suspect.” This sounds fine and a reader will understand what is meant. But almost always, people tend to apply strict grammar and transpose the verb: “They discussed neither the case nor the suspect.” Is this really necessary? I mean, I don’t see any room for confusion in the original sentence. Thanks!
A. I agree that it’s a fine point and that the first sentence can pass the reading test. However, in sentences more complex than yours, the incorrect placement of neither can cause ambiguity:
The police neither caught the suspect after he robbed the bank nor the little old lady bystander packing a stun gun.
Does that mean that neither the police nor the old lady caught the suspect, or that the police caught neither the suspect nor the old lady? For clarity, we recommend using proper parallel structure, especially in formal writing.