The things neither of them don't do

« previous post | next post »

Charlie C. writes:

“There are countless things neither the iPhone 6 nor the 6 Plus don’t do” [link]    

Huh??  Does this say what we know it means?  

I’m still in a loop on this one. Every time I read it I grind to a halt.  I could go to the Wikipedia and give myself a short refresher course on Boolean logic and then see if I could do the conversion from English to Boolean correctly, or… here I am.

There are two issues with this phrase.

First, should it be "don't do" or "doesn't do"? "Neither X nor Y" is technically a singular noun phrase, so it ought logically to be "doesn't do".

But we should let Norma Loquendi have her say. So here are the first ten examples from COCA where we can tell whether a subject of the form "Neither X nor Y"  (for singular X and Y) takes singular or plural verb agreement:

… neither the United States or the international community is going to allow …
… Neither the White House nor the Obama campaign suggests
… neither the paper nor a prominent genealogical society has seen …
… Neither the powder nor the water used to mix it was found to be contaminated …
… neither the presidential candidate nor the U.S. senator is playing up that history …
… While neither the Czech Republic nor Romania use the euro …
… Neither the PGA Tour nor the LPGA tour discloses disciplinary actions …
… Neither the official Web site nor the public display at the historic site mentions the Chiricahua …
… Neither the Group Task interaction nor the Group Task Feature interaction was significant …
… if neither the driver nor any passenger has a disability, …

Only one out of ten shows plural verb agreement ("neither the Czech Republic nor Romania use the euro") — and in that case X and Y are collective nouns — so we have a reasonable consensus in favor of singular agreement.

[For further discussion, see "Agreement with disjunctive subjects", 4/4/2009.]

But the second question is the one that Charlie raises — isn't this a case of misnegation?

Simpler versions of the same sentence remain hard to decode, due to the ambiguity in scope of negation:

Neither Ann nor Bob wasn't present.

Does this mean

(1)  It's not the case that neither Ann nor Bob was present.
or (2) Neither Ann nor Bob was absent.

(1) is true if at least one of them was present; (2) is true only if both were present.

Presumably what happened to the iPhone reviewer was that he started with something like

There are countless things that the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6 Plus don't do.

And then he (or his editor) decided to make the negation more emphatic, while also elevating the stylistic level, by substituting "neither the iPhone 6 nor the iPhone 6 plus" for the simple conjunction.



  1. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 17, 2014 @ 10:54 am

    The only way I can understand "Neither Ann nor Bob wasn't present" is as 2, neither one was absent. Maybe I'm not good at ambiguity detection.

    I sort of wish that someone had said those phones don't do anything useful and the writer was contradicting that claim. But alas, it's just a misnegation.

  2. Mark Mandel said,

    September 17, 2014 @ 11:16 am

    This is so unidiomatic in this register that I can only absorb it as a misnegation.

  3. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 17, 2014 @ 11:53 am

    Speaking of my difficulties in seeing more than one interpretation, I wonder if I might bring up two possible misnegations that people elsewhere didn't agree on.

    This one is from The Little Friend, by Donna Tartt, which I'm told takes place in Mississippi.

    "'Sometimes I wonder,' said Libby tremulously, 'if we did the right thing by not urging Charlotte to move to Dallas.'

    "There had been talks not long after Robin died. The bank had offered Dix a promotion if he would relocate to Texas. Several years later, he had tried to get them all to move to some town in Nebraska. So far from not urging Charlotte and the girls to go, the aunts had been panic-stricken on both occasions and Adelaide and Libby and even Ida Rhew had wept for weeks at the very thought."

    Not urging?

    This one from The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien, may be harder. Bilbo left on an adventure without telling anyone and has returned after more than a year. (Oh, you knew that?) A sign says an auction will start at ten o'clock.

    "It was now nearly lunchtime, and most of the things had already been sold, for various prices ranging from next to nothing to old songs (as is not unusual at auctions). Bilbo's cousins the Sackville-Bagginses were, in fact, busy measuring his rooms to see if their own furniture would fit. In short, Bilbo was 'Presumed Dead', and not everybody that said so was sorry to find the presumption wrong."

    Sorry or happy?

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 17, 2014 @ 11:56 am

    Now that I look at the first one again, I think it should be "Far more than just not urging Charlotte and the girls to go…"

  5. Rube said,

    September 17, 2014 @ 1:13 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: It's funny, now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure that one from "The Hobbit" tripped me up last time I read the book, yet I had to look over your post about three times before I caught the problem.

    Misnegations are weird.

  6. Gregory Kusnick said,

    September 17, 2014 @ 1:27 pm

    To me, "did the right thing by not urging" sounds weird and unnatural, but Google provides plenty of evidence that "not doing X" is apparently a thing that can be done (rightly or wrongly).

  7. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 17, 2014 @ 1:39 pm

    In what "technical" sense is "neither X nor Y" singular? If it were functionally singular, insofar as pretty much everyone pretty much all the time treated as such for verb-agreement purposes (the way mass nouns are treated, even though it's a bit conceptually dodgy to think about what singular-v-plural would even mean as applied to them) that would be one thing, but instead people seem to get confused with some regularity. Asking whether NP's of the form "neither X nor Y" are singular or plural feels to me rather akin to asking whether zero is even or odd, or whether one is a prime number.

  8. Christopher said,

    September 17, 2014 @ 1:39 pm

    It's like you ain't never seen a double-negative before; can't none of us say we don't use none o' them now and then…

    [(myl) Negative concord is one of the four alternative explanations for misnegations that we've been considering here over the past decade or so… But I don't think it's what's going on in this case.]

  9. Gregory Kusnick said,

    September 17, 2014 @ 2:05 pm

    J. W. Brewer: Those particular mathematical questions are perhaps not the best illustration of your point, since they do in fact have definite answers: zero is unambiguously even (divided by two, it yields a remainder of zero), and one is by definition not a prime.

  10. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 17, 2014 @ 2:42 pm

    Perhaps I should have said I was talking about common sense, not actual formal mathematics which sometimes sidesteps problems with no obvious intuitive answer by imposing arbitrary/conventional definitions by fiat. It's the difference between saying N is even iff you can divide a pile of N marbles into two piles of equal (= even) size and saying N is even iff it can be divided by two and yield a remainder of zero – which . . . is a very different sort of contention. (If you've taken so many math classes you believe that you can divide a pile of no marbles into two separate piles of no marbles you may need to step outside for some fresh air.)

    Maybe a better example would be the question whether zero is a natural number (i.e. are the natural numbers the positive integers or are they the non-negative integers), which wikipedia assures me remains an issue upon which there "is no universal agreement." I assume any future "universal agreement" will be achieved simply by virtue of getting a critical mass of relevant people to agree on an arbitrary definitional convention, not because anyone's basic intuitions about the oddity of the situation (zero is in some but not all respects different from the positive integers in ways they are not different from each other, so how do you handle those differences) have changed.

    That zero-as-a-number is not a Swadesh-list-type basic/autochthonous component of most natural languages' lexicons may be relevant here. This is something our poor monkey brains are imperfectly designed to handle, and are easily fuddled by when using natural language.

  11. Gene Callahan said,

    September 17, 2014 @ 3:01 pm

    J.W., there are non-monkey brains around that handle these problems easily?

  12. Brett said,

    September 17, 2014 @ 3:26 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: I think the Hobbit's "sorry" gets a comment in the annotated edition that I own. However, I'm travelling this week, so I can't look to see what it says.

  13. Gregory Kusnick said,

    September 17, 2014 @ 3:47 pm

    J.W.: I guess my intuition differs from yours then. Say a friend and I buy a lottery ticket together and agree to split the winnings evenly. In the (likely) event that the ticket turns out to be a loser, the "pile" to be split will be empty, and we each get zero, with nothing left over. To my monkey brain this seems a perfectly intuitive and commonsensical way of looking at it.

  14. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 17, 2014 @ 4:41 pm

    Gregory Kusnick: "Did the right thing by not urging" sounds okay to me. I didn't make it clear that my question was about the second instance of "not urging", which is in the last sentence of the extract. But really the question is about "So far from".

    Brett: Thanks, I'll keep my eyes open for that annotated edition.

  15. Jonathan D said,

    September 17, 2014 @ 6:19 pm

    J. W.: I'm quite happy to be put in the "should get some fresh air" category, but whatever you think of 0 being even, it's far from arbitrary. If you're happy to call your lack of marbles a pile of no marbles to start with, then you should be happy to split it in two.such piles.

  16. D.O. said,

    September 17, 2014 @ 6:37 pm

    Well, it may be argued that 0 is not even, if definition of even is constrained to positive numbers (and why not?), but I have a hard time imagining how it can be an odd number even within a very informal definition. Any argument I can come up with would exclude 0 from the realm of numbers as well.

    As for the rest of them (is 1 a prime? is 0 a natural number?), these questions even cannot be asked in a natural language situation and can very well be settled by people who don't have enough of fresh air.

  17. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 17, 2014 @ 7:04 pm

    I fear that in an attempt to offer an analogy I have diverted the thread into a discussion of the imperfections of the analogy. So let me withdraw that and ask again whether it makes sense (whether intuitively or logically or pragmatically or technically or whatever way you want to talk about) to think of NP's of the form "neither X nor Y" as "singular" and if so why. "Most of the time NP's of that form seem in most varieties of English to take singular verb agreement when the speaker/writer isn't paralyzed by self-consciousness about the issue" might be an acceptable answer, if empirically true. But are there others?

  18. D.O. said,

    September 17, 2014 @ 7:55 pm

    @J.W.Brewer. If I understand you correctly, "neither X nor Y" is not a designation of any object in any sense and therefore cannot be logically either singular or plural. Also "neither X nor Y" requires plural agreement if either X or Y is plural (or both, but then it should be "are plural") . By "technically", I think, Prof. Liberman meant "as written in all textbooks".

  19. Steve Morrison said,

    September 17, 2014 @ 9:03 pm

    I checked my copy of The Annotated Hobbit, but there was no mention of the misnegation (and I have the revised edition). I found nothing in Rateliff's The History of The Hobbit, either.

  20. pjharvey said,

    September 18, 2014 @ 1:33 am

    Isn't the agreement between 'countless things' and 'don't do', and not whatever is stuffed between them?

  21. maidhc said,

    September 18, 2014 @ 3:20 am

    "Neither A nor B do X". A clear statement.

    "Neither A nor B don't do X". This could conceivably mean either "Both A and B do X" or "At least one of A and B does X", or even possibly "Either one but not both of A and B does X". But I submit that none of these interpretations is acceptable. Logic can be applied to the structure of language to a certain extent, but there comes a point where we must say "No more". I know what is meant, but this goes in the same class as "I could care less".

    Regretfully I must apply the same principle to Prof. Tolkien's example. This must go in the "Even Homer nods" classification. It's a pity he is not still around to debate the point with us, although if he wouldn't even allow his wife to buy a washing machine, it's questionable if he would have adapted to computers.

    I have a soft spot for him, because when I was a child he responded to my fan letter with a very warm personalized reply, recommending translations of Beowulf and other reading material. That's something I will treasure for the rest of my life.

    Nevertheless I think that the example is an erroneous construction.

  22. Jay said,

    September 18, 2014 @ 4:16 am

    I think when I use "Neither X nor Y" I treat it as plural or singular depending on if Y is. Then the sentence 'sounds right' when said aloud, as it sounds like it starts at Y.

    I think the ten examples given in OP could be considered evidence for this?

  23. KeefD said,

    September 18, 2014 @ 8:48 am

    In Jerry Friedman's first post he said he could only understand the Ann and Bob example as Mark's reading 2. Let me try.

    If the "not" negates "present" then there is no doubt that "Neither Ann nor Bob was absent", which is reading 2. Ambiguity arises, however, when the "not" is allowed to negate the "neither . . . nor". You may feel that the opposite of "neither . . . nor" must be "either . . . or", which gives reading 1; or that since "neither . . . nor" implies "none", the opposite must be "both", which gives reading 2.

    I think that separating "not present" is unnatural, and only possible here because the example itself does so by using "wasn't" instead of "was not". However, were the example closer to the iPhone one, eg "At countless events neither Ann nor Bob wasn't there" (so it is no longer referring to a one-off), then I would join Jerry and reject reading 1.

    While Ann and Bob may attend separately or together, in the original example it is well nigh obligatory to lump the two phones together as "both", with the opposite of "none" (or neither of two), so the countless things that neither of the phones does not do means that both of the phones do countless things.

    Turning to Tolkien, clearly some were sorry and some happy that Bilbo was not dead. However, "not everybody was" generally implies that most were, while a minority was not; so, as written, those who are sorry that he is alive appear to be in the majority.

  24. Mark Mandel said,

    September 18, 2014 @ 12:50 pm

    pjharvey wrote

    Isn't the agreement between 'countless things' and 'don't do', and not whatever is stuffed between them?

    No. Try this one:
    There are countless things neither Rose nor Sam will eat.
    Clearly the subject of "will eat" is "neither Rose nor Sam", not "countless things"! I've dropped the extra negation, but that doesn't affect the structure at this level.

  25. Marg Nelson said,

    September 18, 2014 @ 3:13 pm

    Using future tense ("will eat") clouds the issue. Example should read, "There are countless things neither Rose nor Sam eats." The last half is a subordinate clause with conjunction "that" understood (ie; things…that neither Rose nor Sam eats). The compound subjects are "Rose" and "Sam". Each is used separately with the verb. The "neither/nor" provides the negation.

  26. Marg Nelson said,

    September 18, 2014 @ 3:21 pm

    And the original sentence should read:

    “There are countless things neither the iPhone 6 nor the 6 Plus does.” Presuming the intended meaning is that both phones fail at certain tasks.

  27. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 11:49 am

    Thanks to Rube, Steve Morrison, maidhc, and KeefD for commenting on my Hobbit example, especially to Steve Morrison for checking The Annotated Hobbit and to maidhc for sharing a reminiscence of one of my favorite writers.

    KeefD: Note that the sentence says essentially "not everybody that said he or she was sorry to find Bilbo alive was really sorry". I can't see people saying they were sorry he was alive, and stranger still, saying it falsely. (Well, maybe one of the Sackville-Bagginses.)

    Thanks for the explanation on Ann and Bob. I can't interpret "was not" any differently from "wasn't" (unlike "can not" and "can't), and I can't understand the "not" as negating "Neither Ann nor Bob", but that may just be me.

  28. BZ said,

    September 22, 2014 @ 9:35 am

    "neither X nor Y don't Z" doesn't mean anything to me. It's just not a well formed sentence. It's not one of those things that sounds ok until you think about it. And no, making it "doesn't" will not help.

RSS feed for comments on this post