Learn English – Usage of “neither . . . nor” versus “not . . . or”


First, this is not a dupe of:

"Not bad either" versus "not bad neither"

nor a dupe of:

"Neither Michael nor Albert is correct" or "Neither Michael nor Albert are correct"?

So on to my question…

I'm not a native english speaker and there's something that I always find very strange when I read sentence containing the following construct:

"and try not to be shocked or
overreact if…"

Isn't something using "neither/nor" better, like maybe the following:

"and try neither to be shocked nor
overreact if…"

To me the first sentence can be interpreted in two ways:

  • you should either try not to be shocked or you should overreact (wrong of course, this is not what the writer meant but in other case it is not that obvious that it is a wrong interpretation

  • you should try not to be shocked and you should also not overreact

while with the second sentence, there's no room for interpretation (once again, in this case in the first sentence it can be deduced from the sentence but I often encounter cases where it is not so).

So… not/or or neither/nor?

Best Answer

...and try not to be shocked or overreact if...

In this sentence, you're telling them that what they must try to avoid is any of being shocked or overreacting. In essence, you're asking them:

...[try not] to [either be shocked or overreact]...

And not, for instance:

...either [try not to be shocked] or [overreact]...

Phrases with neither...nor are more explicit, but also more formal, and I think not...or is much more common for lists where all items are negative.