Can 'either' refer to three things?

“Every outfit I tried on was either too casual, too loud or too frumpy.”

A funny thing about language: When you use it without thinking, you usually do just fine. It’s only when you stop and question words, grammar and meaning that you realize you don’t understand some element of the language as well as you thought you did.

I was reminded of this recently when someone asked me about “either” to introduce three things, as it does in the sentence about the outfits. Doesn’t “either,” by definition, refer to a choice between exactly two things? A statement is either true or false. A protagonist is either good or bad. Your car either runs or it doesn’t.

So how can “either” set up three things?

Well, according to some people, it can’t. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage lists 10 grammar experts who, in the early 1900s, started saying it’s wrong to use “either” to refer to more than two things. Oddly, grammar experts in the mid- to late-1800s had no problem with it, but this new crop of scolds started a trend.

There’s a flaw in their logic, as Merriam’s points out: The experts who say “either” must refer to only two things don’t take into account that it can be a pronoun, an adjective or a conjunction, and it works differently in each role.

Here’s my recent column showing why in one of its jobs, “either” can refer to more than two things.

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