Does both mean two?

Nonscientific survey here.

Question 1: In your own personal usage, can you use the word both with more than two items?

For example, do the following sound okay to you?

  • Wash both the plate, the bowl, and the cup.
  • Wash both of the three dishes.

Question 2: What about the word either? For example:

  • Wash either the plate, the bowl, or the cup.
  • Wash either of the three dishes.

Question 3: What about neither/nor? For example:

  • Wash neither the plate, the bowl, nor the cup.
  • Wash neither of the three dishes.

Question 4: What about whether? For example:

  • Whether you open the door, close the door, or leave it alone, don’t go through it.

In my usage, all of those words apply only to exactly two items (though whether is a bit more flexible for me than the others), but recently I’ve seen several cases of more-than-two usage, so I’m curious about what other people think.

Various online sources suggest that the more-than-two usage is generally considered nonstandard but has been used by plenty of writers, especially in informal contexts. But even so, I’d be interested to hear about your usage.

8 Responses to “Does both mean two?”

  1. Frederic Bush

    For me, “whether” can take any number but all of the others take two.

    However, I am reminded of the unofficial postal service motto for neither — “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds. ”

    • Jed

      Great point about the USPS motto! That doesn’t bother me at all. I wonder if the repeated nor helps make it sound reasonable to me. “Neither snow, rain, heat, nor gloom of night” does sound kinda weird to me.

  2. Jeremy

    All of the examples in Questions 1-3 sound weird to me. The example in Question 4 seems OK.

    It could be that the use of the serial “nor” makes the USPS motto sound reasonable, or it could be because the phrase is so well-known, or because the motto is so obviously from another era.

  3. -Ed.

    Q1: Neither the first nor the second sentence sounds good to me.
    Q2: The first sentence sounds OK, but the second sounds awkward.
    Q3: Neither the first nor the second sentence sounds smooth to me.
    Q4: The sentence sounds fine.

    However, neither the question one nor the question three examples, nor the second example of question two, sound so awkward as to make me think I had not understood the speakers meaning, nor to think that the speaker must be a non-native speaker of English idiom, nor even to think that such a sentence could never be naturally spoken at all but could only be deliberately written, like this one, in order to provide an example of awkwardly worded, unidiomatic English.


  4. Morrisa

    I was taught by BOTH my mother the English teacher and my father the technical editor that the word both describes a set that includes precisely two members, but it seems that relaxed usage of both does have instances that go way back: “both father, son and

  5. Morrisa

    “Both father, son, and holy ghost through all eternity”

  6. irilyth

    I recognize either and neither as being supposed to take only two things, but it sounds fine to me to use them with more than two.

    I didn’t realize that whether is supposed to take only two things.

    I think both sounds weird with more than two things. (Including in The Seven Joys Of Mary, where I’ve always interpreted it as reflecting the ineffable and contradictory nature of the Trinity. :^)

  7. MyS

    Both = two.
    Either/or = two.
    Neither/nor = technically two, but doesn’t sound as wrong as it should with a list: Example 3(1) sounds fine; 3(2) sounds very wrong.
    Whether = any number.


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