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Rewriting the Zombies: Don’t Use “Each” for “Either”

Zombie hands coming out of the dirt holding a sign that says "'Either' sometimes means 'each.'"

Zombie rules are grammar rules that follow you around like the undead. They’re not really grammar rules, though. Some are stylistic choices, while others are made-up nonsense to make English work more like Latin. In this occasional series, you’ll learn why the rules don’t work and what rule you can follow instead.

Don’t Use Each to Mean “Either”

Some people learned that each and either have different meanings. Each, they were taught, means “all,” so that in “a lamp on each side of the door” would mean there are two lamps present. Either, on the other hand, means “one,” so that “a lamp on either side of the door” would refer to one lamp that could be in one of two positions. 

Why, these folks wonder, do so many people confuse each and either?

The short answer is that they’re not. Either has been idiomatic and grammatical for “each of two” since c.893, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Some writers choose to use either, while others use each.

However, at least as early as 1763, some usage commentators declared that only each should be used in such situations as a lamp on each side of the door. Bishop Robert Lowth seems to be the first to have rejected this adjectival usage of either, his reason being “either properly signifies only the one, or the other, of them,” denying the millennium-old “each of the two” meaning. 

Others followed suit, including H. W. Fowler in 1926, who stated the “each of two” meaning was archaic, and John Bremner in 1980, who only said not to “use either as a substitute for each or both.” 

Yet there have been defenders of either being used for each along the way, including Samuel Johnson in his 1755 dictionary and Theodore Bernstein and Bryan Garner in our own time. It’s simply a matter of accepting a usage that has been used consistently by all kinds of writers, including Shakespeare, Faulkner, and other luminaries.

A quick search in Merriam Webster may add more ambiguity to this debate but helps us understand modern interpretations of these words. Each is listed in the first definition of either: “being the one and the other of two : EACH.” 

For each, though, the definition says: “being one of two or more distinct individuals having a similar relation and often constituting an aggregate.” Note the use of or more here. In modern language, we seem to be leaning towards either to indicate a choice between two things, and each to reference more than two, or “all.” 

Rewriting the Zombie

Either can sometimes be used to mean “each.”

Use your best judgment when choosing between each and either, keeping in mind modern usage. Consider your audience and what you are trying to tell them. If you would like your audience to envision two lamps surrounding the door, you might opt to use each. If there is only one lamp but two places where it can stand, either may be the better choice. 

A version of this article originally published in 2014 in the Copyediting newsletter.

2 thoughts on “Rewriting the Zombies: Don’t Use “Each” for “Either”

  1. A quick query.
    “Why, these folks wonder, do so many people confuse each and either?
    The short answer is that they’re not.”

    ‘they’re not’ or ‘they don’t’ [confuse each with either]?

    1. Good question, Yateendra! The “they” in the second sentence refers to “people” in the previous sentence, not “these folks.” While it’s grammatical, I could have written that more clearly.

      A good rewrite might be: “Why, these folks wonder, are ‘each’ and ‘either’ so often confused? The short answer is that they’re not.” That would change the antecedent of “they” to “each and either.”

      Thanks for asking!


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