Correlative conjunctions in English

[This post has been written with ESL/EFL students in mind, CEFR level B1 and above.]

Correlative conjunctions are used to join words, phrases or clauses within a sentence. They always come in pairs, which is where learners sometimes make mistakes. In languages such as the South Slavic ones (which most of my students speak as their mother tongue), in some of these combinations one and the same conjunction is used within a pair, and I sometimes hear students make grammatically incorrect sentences such as “I like and apples and oranges”. With the more complex correlatives, word order and use of tenses can also be an issue.

In this post we’ll go through a list of common correlative conjunctions with example sentences. At the end, you’ll find a link to a grammar quiz on this subject.

both… and

This correlative is used to say that both elements mentioned in a sentence are true.

I like both apples and oranges. 

It’s typically used for emphasis, otherwise you can just say “I like apples and oranges.”

It’s followed by a verb in the plural form, because it refers to both nouns:

Both Mark and Anna have done their homework.

either… or

Use this when only one of the things mentioned is true or there is only one option:

He can stay either at my place or at yours.

When connecting clauses, you can start the sentence with ‘either’:

Either you do as I say, or I’ll get very upset.

neither… nor

Use this when both of the things mentioned are in the negative:

I will neither go shopping nor study for the exam.

If we don’t study hard, neither you nor I will pass this exam.

whether… or

Use this when there are two options: 

I can’t decide whether to watch TV or go for a walk.

I’m not sure whether he’ll go to the cinema with us or not.

(would) rather… than

This is used when you want to say that one thing is preferred over another:

She would rather live in the country than in a city.

He’d rather die than admit he was wrong.

such… that

Use this to emphasise that one thing led to another or resulted in something:

Such was my disappointment that I felt sad and depressed the whole day.

Such was his success at work that he was quickly promoted.

not only… but also

Use this to add another piece of information to something already mentioned. This correlative can sound emphatic and formal.

Not only was he late for class, but he also forgot to bring his homework.

The economic crisis has led not only to greater unemployment, but also to civil disorder.

no sooner… than

Use this to say one thing happened immediately after another, and mind the word order.

No sooner had I arrived than it started to rain.

Notice the use of tenses: the ‘no sooner’ part always refers to a past action/event that happened before another past action/event, and so it’s often followed by the Past Perfect tense; use the Past Simple tense after ‘than’, as in the example above.

The following correlatives have the same meaning and work the same way, but they sound very formal:

hardly… when

Hardly had I finished the project, when they offered me to work on another one.

scarcely… when

Scarcely had the war begun when thousands of refugees left the country.

as… as

This is used to compare two things that are the same or very similar in some way (indicated by the adjective in between):

This sweater is as expensive as that one.

This film is as boring as the one we saw last week.

You can emphasise the first element by adding ‘just’ + as:

She is just as clever as her sister.

You can make the first part of the sentence negative by adding ‘not’: 

I’m not as tall as you are.

You can also add much or many to indicate quantity (remember that ‘many’ goes with countable plural nouns and ‘much’ with uncountable nouns:

(not) as many… as

There are as many people who like classical music as those who hate it.

There are not as many people here as I was expecting.

(not) as much… as

I have as much free time as I like.

I don’t have as much money as you do.

the + comparative… the + comparative

There’s a number of common expressions following this pattern (the definite article the + a comparative adjective), such as:

The sooner the better.

The more the merrier.

You can also use this structure in more complex sentences:

The sooner you start working on your homework, the sooner you’ll finish.

The harder you work, the better will be your chances of a promotion. [Note the use of comma in writing before the second part of such sentences.]

Now that we’ve covered all these common correlative conjunctions, you can try this grammar quiz.

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