It’s easy for native English speakers to understand the rules and nuances of the English language, which is why we never really think that learning the language is difficult. But in truth, seeing that the current English language is simply the bastardized mix of languages from all over the world, if you look at the perspective of someone past their early twenties who has to learn English from scratch and has not understood its nuances, it’s pretty difficult to understand. Just listen to this poem:

In this article, we tackle handling the question: which is better? When presenting someone with two choices, how do you ask them which one is better? And when you’re the one being asked to decide, how do you answer?

 

Asking the Question: Which Is Better?

Let’s say you’re in a store with a friend trying to buy watches, and your choice comes down to two options. You like both, but you want to get your friend’s opinion. How do you ask your friend to choose which one they like better?

Photo from Robin Higgins

In the English language, there are many ways to get your friend’s opinion. Asking “Which one should I buy?” provides the same response as “Which one looks better on me?” or “Which one do you like better?” While all three may have slightly different responses (if your friend is thrifty, for example, they may be more inclined to pick the watch that costs less or looks more durable rather than the one that looks better), you get the same results: asking any of these three questions will get their opinion on which one you should walk out of the store with by the end of your purchase.

The English language is complicated like that. For one thing, you can say “Which is better?” and it would have the same effect as “Which one is better?” These are two grammatically correct sentences, regardless of the situation whether you’re trying to speak formally or informally. Why are both sentences correct? Because of the way the sentence is structured.

 

Interrogative Sentences

An interrogative sentence is one that asks questions and is denoted by the question mark, “?”. The other forms of sentences are declarative (sentences that state a fact), imperative (sentences that state a command), and exclamatory (sentences that state a forceful declarative).

Photo from Robin Higgins

When your teacher taught you how an English sentence comprises of a subject and a predicate, they may have failed to tell you that some sentences don’t have an explicit subject but is still a valid sentence. When you use the declarative sentence, for example, and say “The ball is red,” you know what the subject (ball) and the predicate (is red) is. However, not all sentences are like this. For example, an imperative sentence can be a simple “Run.” The predicate is evident: it is the verb itself, “run.” As for the subject, it may not be visible, but the subject is the person who is being told to run, or an invisible “you.” If written the long way, the sentence “Run” can be translated to as “You run.” Since it is implied that the speaker of the sentence is telling you to run, though, it is redundant to say “You run” and a simple “Run” can be a sentence.

The same concept applies to interrogative sentence. The easiest way to find out the subject and predicate of a question is to convert the question into a declarative statement. So take the question:

“Which one is better?” or “Which is better?”

Like imperative sentences, there is an implied subject which, in this case, is the watch you are presenting to your friend. If stretched to include the implied sentence, your sentence should now be:

“Which watch looks better?”

If changed into a declarative sentence, it now becomes:

“This watch looks better.”

So we can now easily see that “watch” is the simple subject (and “This watch” is the subject), while “looks better” is the predicate. But in the context of showing both watches to your friend, since your friend can see that both options are watches, there is no need to add “watch” or “watches” to your sentences when it is already implied.

You can say “which watch looks better,” but when said in a casual question, most people would simply drop is and say “which one looks better” or “which looks better.” In this case, adding a “one” to the sentence ultimately makes no difference.

 

Answering the Question: Either, Or, Neither, Nor

What if the roles were reversed and it is your friend asking you which watch looks better? The answer was already mentioned earlier: point out which one you think looks better, and say “This watch looks better” or “This is better” or “This one” – all three have the same idea.

However, when posed with questions in similar situations, you may have an answer that isn’t a simple choice. And for that, you may need a correlative conjunction of either “either” and “or” or “neither” and “nor.” Here’s a 12-minute comprehensive video on Advanced English on the usage of both.

 

Scenario 1: You like both – use “either” and “or.”

Let’s say that the watches your friend presents you look very similar, it’s the same price, and they’re both practically the same watch with some minor differences. So, you want to tell your friend that either watch is a good choice (and that you don’t particularly care about the differences). You can say it in two ways. Using the correlative conjunctions, you can say:

“Either this or that watch is fine.”

That signals to them that any of the two is fine. However, because of the context, you don’t have to say “this or that watch” since you are speaking while understanding the context. Since it becomes redundant to say it, you can simply tell your friend:

“Either is fine.”

Since you’re talking about the watches, there is no need to indicate in your sentence that you’re speaking with regards to the watches: this is already implied, after all. And since the question asks which one looks better, the predicate “is fine” is already implied in the conversation, so you can still drop it and simply say:

“Either.”

In this case, the implied subject are the watches, while the implied predicate is that both are good.

 

Scenario 2: You don’t like any of the choices – use “neither” and “nor.”

On the other hand, what do you say if both watches are hideous, of poor quality, and just not worth the prices? The same applies from scenario one, but instead of “either” and “or,” you should use “neither” and “nor.”

“Neither this or that watch looks better.”

This signifies that you like neither watch so much that none of them would be your choice. You could choose one that looks less ugly (and your friend may insist that you pick one of them regardless of your taste), but you find that both look so ugly that you’re telling your friend not to buy any of the two. However, like the first scenario, you can drop the implied parts of your sentence, so the following sentences are just as grammatically correct:

“Neither looks better.”

You could also drop the subject and predicate implied in the context and simply say:

“Neither.”

 

Things to Note

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  • You might notice that the way you speak is different than when you’re writing to a person. The reason why I recommend dropping the subject and predicate when it’s implied and redundant is because it sounds too awkward. When with your friend and they give you the choice between two items, saying “Either this or that is fine” sounds a bit too formal and wordy for a casual conversation between friends. In this case, “Either” is just fine since both of you understand the context of the conversation.

However, take note that this does not apply to all scenarios. Let’s say that your boss is the formal type of person and expects some amount of respect and reverence from their employees. He asks you to choose between two options, and you think both are fine. Saying “Either this or that is fine” is still a bit too formal since you’re discussing it as it happens, but saying “Either” is too casual and may come off as a bit disrespectful. In formal occasions, you might want to say “Either is fine.”

 

  • Take note that in situations where choices are posed, you aren’t limited to questions that have “Which” and answers with “either,” “or,” “neither,” and “nor.” Grammatically, these are also correct questions and answers but do not require these words:
    • Does this look better than this?
    • Should I buy one of these?
    • (Sometimes, instead of asking a question, they may ask the decision) Pick one.
    • I prefer this one.
    • This one.
    • Both are bad choices.

When it comes to asking and receiving choices, there’s a grammatically correct way to say it – in fact, there are plenty of ways to express your answer or ask a question. The one thing you should remember is that the English language is vast and full of synonyms and signifiers that suggest the same thing even when some words on their own are different. But if you want to ask a question or answer correctly, it’s best to follow this guide.