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TWTS: By "either," do you mean "either" or "either?"


Generally, the word “either” is pronounced either with a long “I” sound or a short “I” sound. People on both sides have pledged loyalty to their particular pronunciation.

Either way, we think there’s a more interesting debate to be had over this word.

A listener recently told us about a household dispute over how to use “either.” She was putting together an indoor bike trainer, when her husband instructed her to “tighten the wheel on either side.”

If you were given that direction, what would you do? Would you tighten both sides of the wheel or just one? If you’re not sure, neither was our listener.

As it turns out, her husband meant that she should only tighten one side of the wheel. However, the couple’s 13-year-old daughter said she should have tightened both sides.

The word “either” goes back to Old English. It originally meant each of two or both. By the 1300s though, it also had the disjunctive meaning of one or the other of two.

The disjunctive sense is now more common when “either” is used as a pronoun or an adverb. However, when it’s used with an adjective as in “either side,” it can mean one or the other, or it can mean both. Thus, the ambiguity.

Here’s an example. If someone is decorating a room and they say, “I could imagine putting a painting on either wall,” what do they mean? Are they thinking about putting a painting on both walls, or will they choose one wall or the other?

This brings us back to the ambiguity our listener ran into while putting together her indoor bike trainer. While we realize that we haven’t really resolved her family’s dispute, we hope that we’ve at least succeeded in explaining why ambiguity over “either” exists.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of Weekend Edition at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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