Correlative conjunctions are used in pairs. They join two parts of the sentence that depend on each other to form a complete thought. Today the spotlight is on one specific pair, either-or.
As a correlative conjunction, either-or must connect matching sentence parts. If either is followed by an adjective and a noun, or must be followed by an adjective and a noun. This is called parallel construction.
Parallel Construction Is Key
A common mistake authors make is to place either too early in the sentence which throws off the parallel construction. For example:
Wrong Sentence Structure: You either received the Spirit of God by the works of the law or by the hearing of faith.
In this example, either is followed by received the Spirit of God by the works of the law. This is the first element of the sentence in our two-part matching game. So whatever follows or should match the structure of this phrase. Or is followed by by the hearing of faith.
You can see right away that we’ve got a problem. Either is followed by a phrase with a verb, direct object, and prepositional phrase; and or is followed by only a prepositional phrase. Since the verb received comes after the first correlative conjunction, it only attaches to the first element of the pair and doesn’t apply to by the hearing of faith.
But don’t worry. There is an easy fix. Look for the words in the first phrase that should belong to both parts of the sentence. Once you find those, simply move either to follow those words. The corrected sentence looks like this:
Correct Sentence Structure: You received the Spirit of God either by the works of the law or by the hearing of faith.
Now our two parts are by the works of the law and by the hearing of faith. They match and this sentence is now grammatically correct!
Not only is it grammatically correct but it also conveys a spiritual truth. (Bonus points if you can spot the correlative conjunction I just used.)
It Conveys a Spiritual Truth
Many of us become followers of Jesus and then think we must obey a certain set of rules to stay in His family. The apostle Paul addresses our tendency to do this in his letter to the churches of Galatia.
This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh? . . . ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.
—Galatians 3:2–3, 26–28 KJV
Paul makes it clear that we received God’s Spirit, became part of His family, through faith in Jesus Christ. It wasn’t because we were really good at following a set of laws. So why do we think that being really good at following a set of laws is what is required to keep us in God’s family? For many of us, it is because that’s what we are being taught in our local assembly of believers. If you are in a church right now that teaches you must follow a set of rules or you will lose your place in God’s family, get out of that church.
Remember, you received the Spirit either by the works of the law or by the hearing of faith.
It’s one or the other, folks. Don’t trust in your good works when the source of your relationship is trusting in Him (faith).
Rachel E. Newman
Freelance Editor and Indexer
The grammatical rules used in this post can be found in The Chicago Manual of Style, 5.32-34, 5.195, and 5.214.