Nowhere is safe

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Reader JM wrote to draw our attention to the slogan "Nowhere is safe" on the posters for the new Harry Potter movie:

JM's comment:

This seems ungrammatical to me.

I realize there are variants that use the word in this way metaphorically (as a noun, perhaps a pseudo-placename), most famously "On the road to nowhere" and "Everyone knows this is nowhere," but overall I think this is an adverb for me. "Going nowhere fast" is perhaps on the line, but still adverbial.

Dictionaries generally list nowhere as a noun as well as an adjective, but the entries that I've seen do conform to JM's "pseudo-placename" description. Here's Merriam-Webster's noun entry:

1 : a nonexistent place
2 : an unknown, distant, or obscure place or state <rose to fame out of nowhere>
— miles from nowhere : in an extremely remote place

<from the looks of things, we're stranded in nowhere and most likely its proverbial middle>
<in a few short years he rose out of nowhere to prominence in the dot-com world>

Here's Encarta's:

remote place: a remote or insignificant place

But JM is right that this doesn't work for the Harry Potter posters. It's not that "a remote or insignificant place" is safe, or even that "a non-existent place" is safe. Rather, the catch-phrase means that "it's not the case that any place is safe".

This usage is relatively rare, as far as I can tell. The only instance of the pattern "Nowhere is <adjective phrase>" among the OED's example sentences, for example, seems to be this one (from the entry for wall):

a1930 D. H. LAWRENCE Etruscan Places (1932) 50 Nowhere is far off, in these small *wall-girdled cities.

Again, the dictionary definitions don't work here, because this doesn't mean that "a remote or insignificant" place is far off, or that "a nonexistent place" is far off.  Lawrence means that there does not exist any place [in such a small wall-girdled city] that is far away [from any other place in the same city].  To get this meaning, you need to split the negation out and give it wide scope over the whole sentence, leaving behind an existential quantifier over places.

This use is clearly grammatical in standard English, I think, but the likely scope confusion makes it fairly rare. The commonest examples seem to be phrases like these, where nowhere is post-modified with a prepositional phrase, and/or the predicate is comparative or superlative:

Nowhere in England is further from the sea than Warwickshire!
Nowhere in Bali is more than 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the sea.
The newbie Seoulite quickly learns that nowhere in Seoul is further than a taxi ride away.
Nowhere in America is safe from the foreclosure monster.
Apparently, nowhere in Minnesota is safe from the plague of fornication.
Nowhere is too remote or too small to merit Beijing's interest.
New England is a strange place and nowhere is stranger than Fenway during the baseball season!

This reminds me of a insight that a five-year-old once explained to me, after we had been examining and discussing a globe:

Child: You know, home is farther away than New Zealand.
Me: Really?
Child: Yes. Because no place is like home, right?
Me: Certainly.
Child: And no place is farther away than New Zealand, right?
Me: Pretty much.
Child: So you see, home must be farther away than New Zealand!


  1. Picky said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 12:57 pm

    Would an AmE speaker be happier with "no place"? Nowhere is safe is fine for a BrE speaker.

    [(myl) From JM's note:

    "No place is safe" is ok. "Where are we safe? Nowhere." also ok.

    But I'm skeptical that geography is much of a factor here.]

  2. HP said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 1:09 pm

    ISTR that back in '76, a group of wags had started a mock "No One for President" campaign. They showed up in force at one of Carter's standard stump speeches, and when the candidate got to the line "No one has all the answers," a great cheer rose from the crowd.

    (NB: Memory is fickle; I was twelve at the time.)

  3. Sili said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 1:29 pm

    I'm a NNS, but this didn't register as ungrammatical with me. Interesting how oblivious we can be to the perceptions of others.

  4. Tim Silverman said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 1:39 pm

    "Nowhere is safe" strikes me (BrE speaker) as so completely ordinary that I don't think I see what the problem is supposed to be. It's completely parallel to "nobody's perfect", "nothing tastes better", etc. How else is it supposed to be used?

    At least on uk sites, "nowhere is safe" turns up a large number of hits. It's not restricted to Harry Potter adverts.

    [(myl) I don't think that this is geographical, nor even idiolectal. I suspect that it's one of those cases where a particular mind-set makes it difficult to flip the perception of an ambiguous phrase, even when one of the interpretations doesn't make sense. See Mark Baltin, "Quantifier-negative interaction", in Fasold and Shuy, Eds., Studies in Language Variation, 1974.]

  5. Twitter Trackbacks for Language Log » Nowhere is safe [] on said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 1:50 pm

    […] Language Log » Nowhere is safe – view page – cached Reader JM wrote to draw our attention to the slogan "Nowhere is safe" on the posters for the new Harry Potter movie: Tweets about this link […]

  6. Astrid said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 1:51 pm

    As a HP geek I have to suggest an alternate meaning to "nowhere." Much of the last book revolves around Harry, Ron and Hermione spending a mind-numbing amount of time hiding from evil forces in the woods, or, in the middle of nowhere. It's the only place they are safe. This makes one of the characters quite batty after a while because its so dull and isolated. I see a bit of a double meaning in the phrase, but maybe I'm reading too much into it.

  7. Lauren said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 1:51 pm

    As an AmEng speaker, "Nowhere is safe" is fine, but "No place is safe" is much better. I got a similar judgment from another AmEng speaker. As we said it back and forth, however, the former got worse and worse. I have no good explanation, other than that 'nowhere is safe' has an idiomatic meaning for us, and when analyzed, gets quickly semantically satiated, whereas 'no place is safe' is more literal, thus taking longer to be satiated.

  8. Barry said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 1:53 pm

    Seems like it merely parallels nothing/anything/everything. You likely wouldn't find fault with, "Everywhere is safe," after all.

  9. Amy Stoller said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 1:54 pm

    AmE native speaker here: In context it clearly means the same as "no place is safe." Perhaps slightly odd, but not enough to join my list of personal peeves.

  10. John said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 1:57 pm

    @Tim: "nobody" and "nothing" are both clearly nouns, whereas "nowhere" isn't. I do suspect though that it is by analogy with these common phrases that we get the "nowhere" version.

    "Where are we safe?" "Nowhere"…but that's adverbial.

    I realize that there are a number of google hits, but I almost want to turn "nowhere" into some kind of name, so odd is it to me to treat it as a noun in this sentence. "Who's safe?" "Nowhere."

    @Barry: actually I'm not thrilled with "everywhere" either, so maybe it's just me.


  11. richard said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 2:01 pm

    @HP, I believe you're thinking of Wavy Gravy's perennial Nobody for President campaign, which did start in the Carter administration. In addition to many slogans featuring Nobody as candidate ("Nobody should have that much power! Nobody has our interests in mind! Nobody makes apple pie just like Mom!" etc.), the one that always appealed to me was more place oriented: "U.S. out of North America!"
    The last time I saw him (I think it was during Clinton's re-election campaign), he very grandly announced a brand-new "stump speech," and then brought out a set of wind-up dentures chattering away.

  12. groki said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 2:05 pm

    myl: But I'm skeptical that geography is much of a factor here.

    that is, nowhere is important.

  13. The Ridger said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 2:08 pm

    I don't have a problem with it. It's playing on the meaning of "nowhere" – that is, the only safe place is "nowhere" but that place, of course, doesn't exist. But it's not (to me) an original play. It's ordinary and acceptable.

    I suppose it's like "Nobody has blinded me!" where the word "nobody" didn't get parsed into a proper name (Who's on first). Unless Nowhere is a placename, then I can't find any ambiguity.

  14. ella said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 2:18 pm

    how on earth are 'nobody' and 'nothing' nouns and not 'nowhere'? I am another BrE speaker for whom this usage is completely and utterly unremarkable.

  15. mamimi said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 2:22 pm

    Tomorrow never knows. And never dies. Never knows best.

  16. Qov said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 2:24 pm

    Canadian here and I thought you were kidding at first. I think of 'nowhere' meaning 'no place' as the standard, and of all the references where nowhere refers to an obscure place as metaphorical extensions. How would you feel about "nowhere to hide" or "going nowhere"?

  17. The Ridger said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 2:30 pm

    ps – this is just like "trust no one" and "nobody will help". Isn't it?

    I'm genuinely having trouble understanding what's 'wrong' with this construction.

  18. Picky said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 2:52 pm

    Sorry, myl, but it does seem to be geography, after all.

  19. Russell said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 2:53 pm

    My first impression that it's not ungrammatical, but it is remarkable. It may be a combination of a negative indefinite in subject position and a locative thingy in subject position. In some cases, as many have pointed out, the former is completely normal (nobody's home), but not always: I imagine that if a movie poster had "nobody is smart!" (about someone transported to a place/time of rampant idiocy), reactions would be similar to the HP ads. Then, there's the locative subject, which is also somehow stylistically marked (under that tree is quite comfortable). Plus, perhaps, there is the fact that the sentence is quite short, which probably accentuates any slight oddities.

    Would it be better if there were only one instance of it in the image, maybe at the right edge, so that the juxtaposition of the three different locations of the main characters more clearly provided a background of searching for a place that could answer the question, "is anywhere safe?"

    Just thought of this, though: "Is nowhere safe?" It wouldn't convey the right feeling as the actual tagline, but it seems much less marked to me. Well…scratch that. It's marked, but in a very different way.

  20. Picky said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 3:00 pm

    Back off, chaps, in BrE (a recognised sub-species) it's absolutely pukka. So back off, OK?

  21. mgh said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 3:03 pm

    re: ella, "how on earth are 'nobody' and 'nothing' nouns and not 'nowhere'? I am another BrE speaker for whom this usage is completely and utterly unremarkable." — as a native AmE speaker, I agree completely.

    "Nothing is safe", "No one is safe", "Nowhere is safe", all follow the same pattern to me — there is no thing, no person, no place that is safe and I don't understand the arguments for "nowhere" and "nothing" being different.

  22. Pflaumbaum said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 3:05 pm

    I'm with the other BrE speakers here… it seems completely natural and I had to think to see how it could be perceived otherwise. Is

    <Anywhere's better than this

    any different grammatically?

  23. John said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 3:05 pm

    Serious question: Would anyone ask "Where is safe?"

  24. MattF said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 3:07 pm

    It's not a matter of argument, it's a matter of "What does this phrase signify to you?" To me, it sounds odd– as if there's an underlying assertion that 'nowhere' is an actual place– which, obviously, it isn't.

  25. Andrew W said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 3:07 pm

    Chalk me up as yet another BrE speaker for whom this is stunningly grammatical. And it's not any sort of metaphor/play on meaning for me, either — it's not "there is a place 'nowhere', and that place is safe" — the semantics really is something like "there does not exist an x such that x is a place and x is safe", or "everywhere is unsafe".

  26. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 3:09 pm

    Qov: I think the thought (which I don't share, being British, but it seems to be some people's intuition) is that 'nowhere' doesn't just mean 'no place' but 'in no place' or 'to no place' (just as 'where' normally means 'in what place' or 'to what place' rather than just 'what place'). Hence, unlike 'nobody', it can't stand in subject position, except when used in a special sense like 'an obscure place'. No one is claiming that those are the primary senses, only that they're the only possible senses when it's used as a subject, which is in any case non-standard (in their dialect).

    But your example of 'nowhere to hide' casts doubt on this, I think. In 'going nowhere' it means 'to no place', but in '[there is] nowhere to hide' it does indeed mean 'no place' – which makes it puzzling why it would not be accepted in subject position.

  27. Picky said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 3:12 pm

    So, perhaps it's just some AmE dialects that find it unacceptable?

  28. Peter said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 3:12 pm

    Chipping in as yet another BrE speaker who looked at the posters and couldn't see what the issue was until you explained it. At least among LL readers, geography definitely does seem to be an issue here!

  29. Andrew W said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 3:13 pm

    @John: I can say 'where is safe?'. It sounds a little marginal out-of-the-blue, but it's a lot better in a context:

    two criminals on the run:
    A: Will we be safe in France?
    B: No, they have an extradition treaty.
    A: What about Mexico?
    B: They do too.
    A: Well, where is safe?

  30. John said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 3:15 pm


    "Nothing is safe", "No one is safe", "Nowhere is safe", all follow the same pattern to me — there is no thing, no person, no place that is safe and I don't understand the arguments for "nowhere" and "nothing" being different.

    Yet note how you switched to "no place" instead of "no where" when glossing down the three "no-" words.

  31. Picky said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 3:18 pm

    Heck, John – he did that deliberately, for heaven's sake.

  32. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 3:19 pm

    I agree with all those who say it is geographical. I'm rather doubtful that it could be a question of difficulty in flipping the perception of an ambiguous phrase, because to me it isn't an ambiguous phrase; I think the other possible reading, that there is a place which is in some sense 'nowhere' and that place is safe, only becomes salient if the straightforward reading 'no place is safe' is not a natural one for you. ('Nobody saw me' would not normally be seen as ambiguous, though there is a possible, contrived, reading where 'nobody' functions like a name.)

  33. Lazar said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 3:26 pm

    I think this discussion wouldn't be complete without a consideration of the song "Empire State of Mind", in which Alicia Keyes infamously refers to New York City as "concrete jungle where dreams are made of".

  34. Picky said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 3:26 pm

    Everything is safe, something is safe, nothing is safe.
    Everybody is safe, somebody is safe, nobody is safe.
    Everywhere is safe, somewhere is safe, nowhere is safe.

  35. Pflaumbaum said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 3:27 pm

    @ Andrew – we could call that second possibility 'Odyssean nobody', as it's the basis of the big joke in the Cyclops episode.

  36. Mark Etherton said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 3:28 pm

    Q. Which should you take if offered a choice between a ham sandwich and eternal happiness?

    A. The sandwich, because nothing is better than eternal happiness, but a ham sandwich is better than nothing.

  37. Xmun said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 4:01 pm

    @MattF: "To me, it sounds odd– as if there's an underlying assertion that 'nowhere' is an actual place– which, obviously, it isn't."

    The same sort of thing can be said of "nobody" (cf. Robert Graves: "Nobody, ancient mischief, nobody / Harasses always with an absent body", etc.) and "nothing" (cf. Rochester: "NOTHING! thou Elder Brother ev'n to Shade / That hadst a Being e're the World was made," etc.), but these are just examples of verbal wit.

    Count me among the BrE speakers who find nothing wrong (viz., don't find anything wrong) with "Nowhere is safe".

  38. alex said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 4:04 pm

    Is no it a headline-style contraction of
    "Nowhere (he) is safe"?

  39. Pflaumbaum said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 4:11 pm

    No… it's just saying there isn't anywhere that's safe.

  40. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 4:18 pm

    Hmm, I also found the construction pretty unremarkable as "It is not the case that there is a place that is safe", yet COCA seems to confirm that "nowhere is" constructions are vanishly rare: only 576 occurrences, and scrolling through the top few hits I found only constructions of the type "nowhere is this more evident/obvious/etc.".

  41. John Laviolette said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 4:28 pm

    I don't think the objections to "Nowhere is safe" is a AmE/BrE thing, because I'm an AmE speaker, but don't really get the objection, either. There *is* something odd about it, but I immediately thought of it as parallel to "Nobody is safe/Nothing is safe", or for that matter clichés like "nothing is sacred". Using a negative that normally indicates the absence or imaginary condition of some thing or place to negate the predicate seems pretty common.

    It might be true that in AmE "No place" is more likely to occur in that position, but I don't buy the argument that it's because "nowhere" isclearly an adverb. Look at the uses of "never" in similar phrases, like "Never is a long time".

  42. Geraint Jennings said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 4:33 pm

    Not only unremarkable. Verging on a cliché. A quick search on Amazon throws up enough examples of the phrase occurring in the text of action/thriller books to reassure myself of the slightly hackneyed flavour of the tagline.

  43. Picky said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 4:50 pm

    I think this is geographical, Jl.

    Never is a long time implies that there is a period of time called Never, and it is long.

    Similarly some commentators have suggested that there is a place called Nowhere, and it is safe.

    That's not what a BrE speaker means. He means simply that no place is safe.

  44. Anonymous said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 5:15 pm

    AmE speaker here. I do find it awkward.

  45. Carl said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 5:26 pm

    AmE. speaker here. To me, the slogan is fine until you think about it, then it starts to feel weird. It may also help to say I'm Gen. Y.

    Maybe it helps to think how one would correct it. I think the correction would be "It's safe nowhere." This also sounds funny if you think too much about it, but it uses nowhere as an adverb, which seems to be a thing.

  46. Nelida said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 5:29 pm

    First off: I am neither a BrE nor an AmE native speaker, but I am a linguist by profession, so I hope that you don't think I am barging in without any right to do so. I agree that the question may be of a geographical nature in that it sounds grammatical, or idiomatic, to British ears, and not quite to American ears. So allow me to give my take on the question.
    By "Nowhere is safe", what you are actually saying, is that "nowhere" (conceived as an environment, or a location of sorts) actually IS a safe place (which is obviously the opposite of what is intended by the title in question). Which is completely different from saying "No one is safe" – no space for doubts here. "No place is safe" is also a clear negative, no room for an assertion there. The absolutely grammatically correct expression would be "It isn't safe anywhere" but than it would lack the "catchy" element.

    What it comes down to, is that in "nowhere is safe", what is missing is the subject of the verb "is", which should be "it" (and not "nowhere", as it would appear to be, qualified by "is safe"). "Nowhere is it safe", for instance. True, it might by argued that the subject is ellyptical (implied).

    "No place is safe", on the other hand, retains the "catchiness" and is correct.

    All things considered, however, and having adequately trashed the question, I think that we all know what the intended meaning was, so the phrase, albeit a bit ungrammatically, succeeds in getting the message across. Which is what really matters, box-office-wise…..

  47. Spell Me Jeff said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 5:41 pm

    <insert obligatory reference to "Marathon Man">

  48. The Ridger said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 6:02 pm

    Just to add another data point – I'm American and I really don't find "nowhere is safe" to be remarkable.

  49. majolo said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 6:14 pm

    For what it's worth, AmE speaker here, and "nowhere is safe" is completely unremarkable to me. I get the potential ambiguity that may be sensed — makes me think of "sometimes nothin' can be a real cool hand," although there the "can be" seems to defuse the ambiguity the other way.

  50. wren ng thornton said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 6:18 pm

    Personally (AmE: DC / Portland,OR) I find "nowhere is safe" (viz. everywhere is unsafe) perfectly fine and completely unremarkable. Whereas "no place is safe" sounds stilted, and would only be acceptable when there's an emphasis being placed on the fact that no physical location is safe, as opposed to the general and proverbial case that everywhere or everything is dangerous.

    Do y'all seriously consider it an adverb??"to nowhere go where bold men have gone before""I was nowhere jotting it down when there was a ring at my door""we must walk there nowhere""nowhere! follow me!""I'm driving nowhere to the store""this is nowhere clearer when I give examples"

    The only places I find the word grammatical are when it's being used as a noun, in an adjectival role of noun–noun compounds, or as a dative/locative argument (and it's very explicitly a dative/locative and not a general adverb). Granted the dative usage is a bit odd compared to other nouns, but that's it. How is this any different than other quantificational placeholders of the {every,any,some,no}{one,where,body,thing,…} variety?

    [(myl) Along with clearly nominal uses ("Nowhere is safe"; "She came from nowhere"; "He has nowhere to go"), there are also some clearly adverbial uses. Some examples from the NYT:

    Nowhere is the foolishness of this strategy more self-evident than in Pakistan.
    Nowhere does it say that employees get to tell their employers how to run their own business …
    Although I have nowhere observed the slightest trace of …
    I have nowhere said that he had been "seduced by the contagion of office,"
    The popular sentiment had nowhere been tested on any scale at all significant.

    And the "locative" uses are in positions where the other alternatives are adverbs or prepositional phrases, not nouns:

    They went nowhere.
    They went quickly.
    They went to Boston.
    *They went Boston.

    So it's not implausible for lexicographers to treat nowhere as an adverb as well as a noun.]

    I'm with everyone else who considers the use of "nowhere" as if referring to an actual place as a metaphorical extension and a sort of pun. And, not knowing anything about the HP mythos, this would not come across as one of those cases.

  51. Mark F. said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 6:33 pm

    I'm glad to see some other AmE speakers who think it's completely unremarkable. To people who find something odd about it, why is there not also something odd about "nobody loves me"? Or what about phrases like "he had nowhere to go"?

  52. Mr Punch said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 6:48 pm

    To me (US) just a bit off-center; I'd "correct" to "no place." By the way there is a locality in the town of Weare, New Hampshire, known as North Weare; its center is the middle of No. Weare.

  53. Will said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 7:08 pm

    @Picky said,

    Everything is safe, something is safe, nothing is safe.
    Everybody is safe, somebody is safe, nobody is safe.
    Everywhere is safe, somewhere is safe, nowhere is safe.

    It's safe everywhere.
    *It's safe everything.
    *It's safe nothing.

    Not sure what my point is, just that the analogy doesn't completely hold.

    And FWIW, I'm an AmE speaker who thought that the phrase "Nowhere is safe" was very awkward but still intelligible. I wouldn't go so far as to say ungrammatical so much as a difficult-to-parse grammatical sentence.

  54. Will said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 7:09 pm

    And obviously that last item in the list of 3 should have been "*It's safe everything."

  55. Will said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 7:10 pm

    Gah, miscorrected mysellf. "*It's safe everyone."

  56. unekdoud said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 7:15 pm

    Reminds me of how you can say "elsewhere" but not "elsebody" or "elsething". I found that quite weird.

  57. James Wimberley said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 7:17 pm

    William Morris´ anarcho-syndicalist romance ¨News from Nowhere¨ (1890) is quite a well-known book. Again, as a native BrE speaker I don´t find the placename usages remarkable.

  58. Sandy Nicholson said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 7:21 pm

    @Nelida: Although you accept that the sentence in question ‘sounds grammatical, or idiomatic, to British ears’, you then go on to suggest that the BrE interpretation is plain wrong. (To take such a prescriptive line on Language Log is dangerous!) When BrE speakers say ‘Nowhere is safe’, they are not (at least, according to my native intuition) conceiving of nowhere as ‘an environment, or a location of sorts’ and declaring that it is safe. Instead, they are using a construction that is exactly parallel to that in the sentences ‘Nobody is safe’ and ‘Nothing is safe’. (‘No place is safe’ would, to my mind, be a slightly marked variant of ‘Nowhere is safe’.)

    The OED entry for nowhere does also include several examples of the word used as a noun in this sense (B2), including:
    They had nowhere to run but to their own homes … (1834)
    There is nowhere free from crumbiness and sex. (1958)
    Rural people have nowhere to obtain their cash. (2000)
    I was slightly surprised to find a lack of parallelism in the categories for these words when I looked in the OED. We have (considering only nouns/pronouns (=n.) and adverbs):
    anybody, everybody, nobody – n.
    anything, everything, nothing – n.; also adv. for nothing (and obs. anything)
    anywhere, everywhere, nowhere – adv. (also n. for nowhere)
    Along with @Pflaumbaum (I think), I’d be happy to use anywhere and everywhere as subjects too: ‘Anywhere/everywhere is safe if you’re properly equipped.’ ‘Is anywhere/everywhere (really) dangerous?’ Clearly, though, the -where words don’t have the same distribution as nouns that the -body and -thing words do, so it does seem reasonable (looking at this fairly superficially) to suppose that the limited applicability in BrE is indeed fairly idiomatic.

  59. Dave said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 7:24 pm

    AmE, 30. "Nowhere is safe" is a bit off for me, but good enough that I gave it the intended reading first. "Where is safe?" is terrible. I need "Where is it safe?".

  60. Ray Girvan said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 7:30 pm

    My two cents: I agree with the other BrE speakers. I find it totally unremarkable, with no implication of multiple meanings: to me, it just means "no place is safe". Google News Archive finds plenty of examples.

  61. Nelida said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 7:39 pm

    @Sandy Nicholson. Thank you Sandy for your exhaustive reply, and I hope that not being a native English speaker won't be held (totally) against me…I did not suggest, or intend to suggest, that it was plain wrong, more that it was a matter of usage, and I did end my message with a notation that the meaning was plain and clear. So I don't think I was all that contestative, at all. And there was at least one other opinion (native, mind you) sharing my view about "no place".

    Be that as it may, in your OED-cited examples, note the following:

    There is nowhere free from crumbiness and sex. (1958)

    Here, this supports my contention that there was a missing subject. The example does not say "Nowhere is free from crumbiness and sex" (which would be parallel to the construction under analysis). It most definitely inserts the "There" as subject.

    Anyhow, I don't intend to argue your point, I had more or less conceded in my previous message. This said, I don't think I was entirely wrong, do you?

  62. Will said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 7:42 pm

    @Dave, I agree completely that "Where is safe?" is terrible, even ungrammatical, except in particular contexts where the formal parallel is necessary (as in Andrew W's example). The same holds for sentences like "He said what?" — ungrammatical except in the cases of parallel formal emphasis.

    Interestingly, the question you say you need, "Where is it safe?", is answered in form by the example I gave above, "It's safe everywhere" — the one example of the three where that construction works.

  63. Filius Lunae said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 7:53 pm

    I have to agree with the person who suggested that this was meant to be a double entendre. I imagine that is how the team in charge agreed to use that line (I have to assume that with a movie of this caliber, there isn't just one person deciding everything, but a team of people, and an idea goes up and down the ranks until it is approved). "Nowhere is safe", using "Nowhere" almost as a proper noun, as if it were the name of an actual place or city. But, then, thanks to semantics, this Nowhere is nowhere to be found, so no matter how long they look for this place, they will be unsafe everywhere they go. A paradox, of sorts.

  64. Colin Reid said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 8:00 pm

    BrE speaker: another vote for common to the point of cliché. Similarly "nothing is sacred" or "nobody/no-one was hurt" are very common phrases. I can't think of anything along these lines involving "never", though: I wouldn't say "never is a good time", for instance.

  65. Jens Fiederer said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 8:27 pm

    The only surprising thing is that it was much harder to find "nowhere is x" expression with x being anything but "safe", but "nowhere is safe" outside of a Harry Potter context is not at all unusual.

    "Nowhere is safe" -Potter

    googled up over 800000 references, many (I must admit I checked well under a hundred of them) from news items with no ironic usage obvious.

  66. Barrett D said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 8:35 pm

    No Where or Now Here?

  67. Ralph Hickok said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 8:55 pm

    Nowhere spelled backwards is a place that Samuel Butler wrote about.

  68. John said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 9:00 pm

    For the record, I understood the sentence instantly, but still find it odd.

    @Pinky, honestly I find all these a bit odd too. Totally understandable, but odd:

    Everywhere is safe, somewhere is safe, nowhere is safe.

    Along with Will, I think that they're workable in contexts with what he calls "parallel formal emphasis," but I'd say "It's safe everywhere" or "We're safe everywhere."

    I also still like my "Where is safe?" suggestion, and agree with Will's comments about it. It suggests to me that complete parallelism is lacking.

  69. Army1987 said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 9:02 pm

    I do find it significantly worse than "no place is safe", very likely because of what Andrew (not the same one) said.

  70. Tezuk said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 9:05 pm

    In colloquial Engish in Britain, it's common to say "I was looking for the shoes all day, but nowhere has got them." Nowhere is safe is perfectly normal.

  71. Ethan said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 9:07 pm

    Try "nowhere is/was available/open", as in "We looked for a restaurant but nowhere was open".

    Not sure that it's quite the same thing, but "nowhere is it stated…" gets 90000 Ghits

  72. Pflaumbaum said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 9:52 pm

    I've never heard "nowhere has got them". It's easy to understand what it means, but it sounds quite strange.

    "Where is safe?" is fine for me, though. "Where is safe to park round here?" – completely standard.

  73. Pflaumbaum said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 10:11 pm

    Having said that, I don't know how the gapping works at all in that example. It's clear with "Where is it safe to park __?" but not "Where's safe to park?". All I can say is it feels fine, as do other examples, like the

    "Where's good to eat round here?"

    "Where's good to eat" has 61,400 hits and its own website:

  74. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 10:59 pm

    I'm Canadian, aged 36, native English speaker.

    To me, "Nowhere is safe" sounds completely unremarkable and ordinary. I'm surprised that some find it weird. You learn something new every day.

  75. dw said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 12:14 am

    Originally BrE now living in California. "Nowhere is safe" is neither ungrammatical nor odd nor awkward nor unstylish to me. In fact, I rather like it. "No place is safe", on the other hand, sounds horrible :)

  76. Nathan Myers said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 12:31 am

    If nothing is better than a ham sandwich, then a ham sandwich is certainly better than nothing.

  77. Faldone said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 12:36 am

    This whole argument for the ungrammaticality of "Nowhere is safe" somehow reminds me of my description of a prescriptivist: If it works in practice but not in theory something must be wrong with the practice.

    Regarding the "… going (or heading) nowhere", if we follow the reasoning of the Pullum/Huddleston argument on prepositions as seen in the Pullum argument about "bush" in the phrase "… head[ing] bush…", "nowhere" is a preposition.

  78. Josh McNeill said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 12:48 am

    AmE and I don't find anything weird about it. Even the definition "nonexistent place" works perfectly for me.

    Nowhere is safe.>The only safe place is a nonexistent place.>Every place that exists is unsafe.

    Maybe it's just me, since no one else seemed to mention it, but I completely miss how that definition doesn't fit perfectly in this context.

  79. Aaron Toivo said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 12:49 am

    I and about ten trillion google hits for "nowhere is safe" -potter all agree there is nothing in the world wrong or unusual with the phrase. First five headlines:

    Nowhere is safe, the idea of India is under attack
    Nowhere is safe from recession scaremongering
    Nowhere is safe from epidemic of monstrous works by …
    Snow reaches Florida too, nowhere is safe
    Nowhere is safe from Israel's bombing

  80. Spectre-7 said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 2:12 am

    Regarding the "… going (or heading) nowhere", if we follow the reasoning of the Pullum/Huddleston argument on prepositions as seen in the Pullum argument about "bush" in the phrase "… head[ing] bush…", "nowhere" is a preposition.

    Oh blast. I was just working up the gumption to post that, although I'll add that nowhere fails one of the other tests for preposition-hood, namely that it can't be modified by right (at least not in my own idiolect). They're going right nowhere doesn't quite work for me.

    As for the Harry Potter poster, nowhere is safe is completely natural and unremarkable to me. I'm a 30 year old native AmE speaker from California, for what it's worth.

  81. Craig said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 2:20 am

    AmE, Mid-Atlantic Dialect here, and I don't find the sentence remarkable either.

  82. Julie said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 2:55 am

    I'm actually surprised that anyone finds "Nowhere is safe" to be odd or remarkable. It seems like a normal, unremarkable sentence to me. for the record, I'm 51 and a native of Northern California.

  83. Zachary Overline said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 3:22 am

    Hahah. It's funny that you posted about this. I live in Beijing, and I saw that very poster in the movie theater just the other day. Thing is, Chinese theaters usually just download pictures off the internet, or snatch them from other countries, and kind of paste the Chinese name of the movie over the title in the other language, and then leave everything else alone. So sometimes you'll see posters that are a mix of French and Chinese, German and Chinese, etc.

    When I saw this Harry Potter poster, I definitely thought someone with terrible English was having fun with Photoshop, 'cause the phrase "Nowhere is safe" just… sounds weird. Definitely ungrammatical. Or at least unnatural.

  84. Jens Fiederer said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 3:44 am


    "nowhere is open" can't compete with "nowhere is safe"….but I still get over 10000 hits for it. But the sampling of "nowhere is safe" was uncomplicatedly what one expected, while the first pages of "nowhere is open" contain many items like "The power station itself, although unmanned and in the middle of nowhere is open to viewing by the public…" which don't quite fit the bill.

  85. Michael Watts said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 4:00 am

    24 year old native AmE speaker from California, with possible influence from New Mexico (as I was there between the ages of 7 and 11);

    "Nowhere is safe" is completely normal to me, being, as previously noted, an exact parallel to "Nothing is safe" or "No one is safe". This is how we quantify. ;)

    I wouldn't agree that the availability of "There's nowhere free from crumbiness and sex" indicates that a subject is missing from "Nowhere is free from crumbiness and sex" any more than I would agree that the grammaticality of "There is no one who will help you" precludes that of "No one will help you".

    On a related note, many AmEers have volunteered that they want to use "no place" instead of "nowhere". My dialect allows free variation between -one and -body for quantifying over people. I absolutely would not do the same for quantifying over locations; "someplace" is a readily recognized and markedly informal part of my dialect, but I would never say "everyplace" and hardly ever "no place". "No place is safe" is much worse than "Nowhere is safe".

    How's the distribution of -place quantifiers vs. -where quantifiers? Is there a clear-cut regional distinction? Are there places/people who would use "everyplace"?

  86. Cecily said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 4:58 am

    From all the responses, there seems to be a geographical aspect: all the BrE speakers think the slogan is a standard and unambiguous phrase (and most would find "no place" unidiomatic), whereas AmE speakers are divided.

  87. outeast said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 5:36 am

    Isn't 'no place' pretty much US anyway? Any expression like 'going no place' has that ring to me.

  88. Pflaumbaum said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 5:42 am

    If I may be so bold as to suggest a new feature on Language Log, would it be an idea to have location/dialect tags? Quite a few threads end up with everyone stating whether a form or phrase seems grammatical to them; if it said "Midwest, early 50s" or "Irish living in Cali" or whatever under our names, it would save a lot of unnecessary verbiage.

  89. Pflaumbaum said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 5:43 am

    …and make it easier to do a more accurate straw poll of commenters.

  90. Picky said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 5:45 am

    @Cecily: and there are some signs that it is OK in CalifornianE. I don't think we'd be surprised to find people speaking CalifornianE or BrE around the launch of a Harry Potter movie.

    And the fact that the slogan sounds strange to many AmE speakers shouldn't surprise us, either – aren't there plenty of examples of marketing gaffs like that? Including the launch by the British grocer Tesco of a chain of American stores under a slogan (Every Little Helps) that proved to be gibberish in AmE?

  91. Picky said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 6:09 am

    And isn't "gaff" a gaffe?

  92. Paul said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 6:53 am

    There is a safe place in County Durham (England):,-1.670866&spn=0.004408,0.009645&z=17&layer=c&cbll=54.873778,-1.671167&panoid=T0aJTDMoIHSXhdQrTyW3pg&cbp=12,54.33,,0,4.36

  93. Chris Hunt said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 7:23 am

    Sounds unremarkable to me, as a BrE speaker. I'd see "nowhere" is the opposite of "everwhere", and usable in most of the same places. Why not all of them? Because our lovely language isn't like that!

    "No place" sounds american to me, it's not a construction I'd tend to use.

  94. Rick S said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 8:08 am

    AmE, age 57, grew up in central New York state. Seems completely unremarkable to me, but I admit to having mentally played with the no- words as subjects denoting ironically-named real people/places/things (á la Ulysses' Noman), which may have lubricated my grammatical hardware to recognize this construction.

  95. Mark F. said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 8:55 am

    Rick S. – But the construction in the poster is not a case of "nowhere" denoting an ironically named real place. Grammatically, it's the subject of the sentence, but I'm sure the intended reading was exactly the same as "No place is safe."

  96. Phil said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 9:24 am

    A few posters have mentioned it. But not as many as I feel should have given the number of comments.

    The only reason why I see this could be ungrammatical/odd to anyone is if 'nowhere' as a nominal would cause a problem. Comparing 'nowhere' to 'no one' is beside the point, because 'no one' clearly can ONLY be a nominal.

    That being said I think the usage under debate is pretty common, like everyone seems to think here.

  97. Mark Young said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 11:02 am

    My Canadian dictionary (Houghton Mifflin Canadian) has "No place" as the first definition under noun, with "a nonexistent or insignificant place" second. My British dictionary (Pocket Oxford) has "no place" as the (sole) definition under pronoun. My American dictionary (New Lexicon Webster's) has "a state of not existing or seeming not to exist" first and "a place that does not exist" second. So "Nowhere is safe" would (presumably) be perfectly innocuous to the Cdn/Br editors, and a bit odd to the Am.

    'Nobody', on the other hand, gets similar treatment in all three — ""No person" in Cdn/Br and "Not anybody" in Am. "Nobody is safe" works just fine for all those.

  98. Acilius said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 2:52 pm

    I suppose the usage shows that "nowhere" does not usually mean simply, "a non-existent place." As if to include a non-existent place among existent places in some kind of list of places. More commonly, it is used restrictively, meaning "only a non-existent place."

    Likewise with "nobody should have that much power," the founding notion of the "Nobody for President" movement that HP and Richard mentioned above in connection with Wavy Gravy (though it was Tuli Kupferberg who wrote a couple of songs with that title.) To the extent that there is a joke in that phrase, and in Kupferbergisms like "nobody will tell us the truth," it is in the equivocation between "only a non-existent person" and a non-restrictive use that includes a nonexistent person among the candidates.

  99. Nicholas Waller said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 3:29 pm

    @ Ralph Hickok: "Nowhere spelled backwards is a place that Samuel Butler wrote about"

    Nitpick: not strictly true – that would be Erehwon, whereas his books were Erewhon and Erewhon Revisited.

    I'm another Brit for whom "Nowhere is safe" is unremarkable. Here's a very modern news deployment, in an interview with Irish terrorist group Oglaigh na hEireann in The Belfast Telegraph last week:

    "The organisation made clear that attacks in places such as Holywood, Bangor and east Belfast have been deliberately planned in what were seen as 'safe zones for security forces'.
    "'It was to send a direct message that nowhere is safe,' said one of the group’s leaders."*

    (Earlier on also: "its leadership boasts: 'Nothing is beyond our reach'.")

    *my bolding.

  100. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 4:06 pm

    I think the best way into analyzing the oddity here (if there is one, which seems to depend on whose ear is involved) is, as already noted by some above, considering the oddity of the question "Where is safe?" That seems to my ear ungrammatical as compared to "Where is it safe?" and acceptable only in some sort of informal context where the "it" can be considered implicit. One can answer "Where is it safe?" perfectly acceptably with the single word "Nowhere"; it's trying to expand that answer into a full sentence that gets tricky. "It's not safe anywhere" seems uncontroversially acceptable, but trying to swap in "nowhere" to substitute for the combination of the "not" and the "anywhere" seems tricker than I would have supposed, despite the fact that nowhere = not anywhere seems conceptually straightforward. "It is safe nowhere" and "nowhere is it safe" seem, not ungrammatical, but a bit odd somehow (sort of mock-poetic in diction?), but "nowhere is safe" seems odder still, and I think it's at least in part because the dummy "it" has gone missing altogether, further suggesting some sort of mock-poetic license and implying that several steps might be needed (adding a dropped word and/or switching word order) to work back to a non-poetic-license grammatical sentence, if only we can figure out what that sentence should be. (But of course movie ads are genre in which mock-poetic license doesn't strike me as that weird, and I can figure out what's meant w/o undue difficulty.) FWIW, "Nowhere would be safe" seems a lot less odd to my (AmE, standard elite edumacated dialect over Middle Atlantic substrate) ear, although I don't have an immediate theory as to why.

  101. Jens Fiederer said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 4:12 pm

    I'm afraid that my dialect tag would be too complex to fit in the margins of this blog. I may be sui generis (German birth-10, with a couple of years in Turkey in the middle somewhere, Guam 10-12, Virgin Islands 12-18, Texas 18-? depending on how you score it (residing in Texas, but going to University in Rochester, NY), Rochester thereafter).

    My English grammar, though, is far above average if standardized tests are to be believed – but my pronunciation still has odd quirks (more a result of my having read far more words than I have heard).

  102. Ray Dillinger said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 4:14 pm

    Hmm. Okay. Midwestern US American here, currently living in California. "No Place is Safe" would be absolutely grammatical to me. Grammatical, in fact, to the point of lacking sufficient "zing" for a movie poster.

    "Nowhere is Safe" is familiar, acceptable, unremarkable usage. It sounds very slightly off but probably wouldn't trigger any thought that it was wrong or strange. Depending on who used it and what the rest of his or her speech sounded like, I would probably suppose that he or she were foreign, stressed, in a hurry, or came from a different dialectic community, or that he or she were speaking just slightly carelessly.

    On the movie poster, however, I would guess rather that people sat in a room and tossed around alternatives until they settled on one that was short, catchy, and had enough "zing" (possibly including a subliminal response to a mostly-unnoticed difference in speech pattern) to pique people's interest and excitement. I'd also bet that those people rejected "No place is safe" as insufficiently exciting and "There is no safe place" as being too long.

  103. GeorgeW said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 4:19 pm

    If antiquity were a criterion, the word has qualifying age on it . According to the OED,

    "A compound of NE adv.1 + WHERE adv. and conj. also existed in Middle English, with forms neouwar, neouwer, neower, neowhær, neowhwer, neqwere.]"

    I am not a Harry Potter follower, but wouldn't 'neowhær is safe' have been even better?

  104. Pflaumbaum said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 5:29 pm

    neqwere… that's an interesting one. Some sort of two-millennia-late challenge to Grimm's Law?

    @ Jens – okay we'll put you down as AmEless

  105. John Cowan said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 5:46 pm

    Pflaumbaum: Not at all. Old English /xw/, written hw, was retained in Scots after it became /hw/ and then /w/ in English, and was spelled quh, qw. It is now written wh, the same as in English, and pronounced /hw/.

  106. Pflaumbaum said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 5:51 pm

    Ah right, just an orthographic q then. Thanks.

  107. John V said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 7:27 pm

    I'm surprised that a five-year-old knows what a syllogism is, to the extent of inventing a fallacious one as a joke. My kids must not be going to the right schools.

  108. Matt McIrvin said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 8:21 pm

    AmE speaker here: "Nowhere is safe" seems completely unremarkable to me, unless somebody starts telling me it's grammatically odd.

  109. S(ch)ema(n)tic difr.1 said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 9:52 pm

    BrE here. I've never used the phrase "no place" nor can I recall one of my friends here using it.

    I was always under the impression that this was a well-known difference between the two types of English. Was it only me?

    [(myl) I realize that you're too young for William Wordsworth to have been one of your friends, but he wrote

    14 And She who dwells with me, whom I have loved
    15 With such communion, that no place on earth
    16 Can ever be a solitude to me,
    17 Hath to this lonely Summit given my Name.

    Nor are any of your friends likely to be old enough to have penned this line in 1873:

    1873 Punch 11 Jan. 19/2 For downright hard ‘swotting’ there's no place like School.

    But you might be old enough to have known W. H. Auden, who wrote

    Till there was no place left where they could still pursue him

    But perhaps he was a sort of honorary American, anyhow.]

  110. John G said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 9:54 pm

    The 'problem', or at least the 'issue' that launched this thread, seems to me to arise because some people want 'nowhere' to be only an adverb. Some of the 'acceptable' uses of the word in the comments are as an adverb. But it also seems clear from several dictionaries and most commentators that the word can also be a noun. Once it is a noun, then the phrase from the movie poster is both clear and grammatical. The adverb-only folks just need to expand their horizons (to nowhere?).

    [(myl) The part-of-speech question is a red herring, for the reasons that you note (and which JM also noted in his original email). The issue is one of scope of negation.]

    What about the (also) unexceptional 'road to nowhere'? Presumably this is a noun use, as part of an adverb phrase.

    I very much doubt that the people who wrote the movie poster had in mind, even as an alternative, that Harry and his companions would be safe out in 'nowhere', the isolated regions where they spend a good deal of the book, or any other real or imagined place. In my view they have in mind only the direct, scary meaning that everywhere is dangerous.

  111. John said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 10:37 pm

    @John g.

    No, I never thought that nowhere should be used only as an adverb, as my posts make clear.

    I find my response to the phrase now quite interesting, as many other am-e sparkers seem not to find it remarkable.

    Course, I still wouldn't use it. :-) Somehow it still isn't quite right to me.

    Great thread though. Thanks, everyone.

  112. J. Goard said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 11:48 pm

    From one of my favorite songs, "Leaving Las Vegas":

    Used to be I could drive up to Barstow for the night,
    Find some cross-road trucker to demonstrate his might.
    These days, it seems that nowhere is far enough away,
    So I'm leaving Las Vegas today.

    Those who are familiar with the film (or original novel) will recognize that the manner of "leaving" to which the title refers is, in fact, suicide. (This is also suggested in many ways throughout the song.)

    So I read that "nowhere" clause with a double meaning: in addition to the normal reading (i.e., the one coresponding to the Harry Potter poster), it also suggests that oblivion wouldn't be so bad.

  113. J. Goard said,

    November 9, 2010 @ 12:00 am

    @Mark's 9:52 comment to S(ch)ema(n)tic difr.1:

    Your Wordsworth example doesn't seem to fit as a relevant example, since no is really attached to place on Earth. I would guess that I don't say no place either, although I'm an American, always preferring nowhere. But of course I'd use [no [place X Y Z]], where nowhere is either impossible or very awkward.

  114. GWS said,

    November 9, 2010 @ 2:53 am

    If nowhere is safe, then what's the problem with going there?

  115. Paul said,

    November 9, 2010 @ 5:15 am

    The poetry Mark cites in response to S(ch)ema(n)tic difr.1 is interesting. I'd previously have agreed that no place sounds American (I'm British). Now I'd like to try to refine that. In both the Wordsworth and the Auden I'd have stressed place (this at least seems to fit Wordsworth's pentameter). No place is safe sounds odd to me, unless I stress place (perhaps in some contrastive setting such as no place is safe; no time is safe). With just a stress on no I get the impression of American English, just as I would with some place else as opposed to somewhere else. Am I right in my impression? Does it matter how the stress pattern works (i.e. strong-weak is American; weak-strong, or strong-strong could also be British)? I'd suggest this might account for some of the differing observations in the comments above. This seems to me (as a phonetician) to be just one of those cases where written English can be ambiguous in a way spoken English isn't: I think there's plenty of evidence that prosody is implicated in meaning, enough that a syntactic/semantic analysis which ignores prosody can be misleading.

    If the poster said no place is safe, I'd just assume it was an American translation of the original English, just as apparently happened in the text of the books on which the films are based. That construction in that context is familiar to me, but only through hearing Americans use it.

  116. GeorgeW said,

    November 9, 2010 @ 7:10 am

    @Paul: This AmE speaker stresses 'no' in both 'NO place is safe' and 'NOwhere is safe.'

    The stress in 'NO place' may be to emphasize the contrast with 'any', 'a,' 'some,' 'the,' etc. The stress in 'NOwhere' may just be penultimate word stress.

    However, in a phrase such as 'noWHERE, no HOW, no WAY' my stress shifts to weak-strong, I think, to emphasize the contrast.

  117. Ken Brown said,

    November 9, 2010 @ 7:27 am

    I'd read the Wordsworth as using the ordinary word "place" with "no" in front of it. Much as he might have said "no plate is clean" or "no horse is in the stables". Same applies to the song title "there's no place like home" – that's a paralel to saying "there is no bunny like Bugs" – which doesn't create a word "nobunny".

    To my English ears "noplace" as a word sounds American, old-fashioned, and a bit hick. I want to imagine a car broken down on some remote rural road and old man sitting on the side saying something like "You ain't goin' noplace anytime soon!"

    But "nowhere" is a word, and as others have said its usage is similar to to "no-one" or "nobody" or "nothing". Just as "anywhere" is a bit like "anyone", "anybody", and "anything"; and "everywhere" is like "everyone", "everybody", and "everything".

    Though I confess I can't see the objection to "Where is safe?". Its not a very likely question because the contexts it would arise in aren't that usual in everyday life. But it seems a natural way to use English to me. And if you were being chased by Gibbering Things that want to Eat Your Brain then "nowhere is safe" might be a very natural answer.

  118. Nicholas Waller said,

    November 9, 2010 @ 9:18 am

    Googling "Where is safe?" you do get various hits: "Is Colombia Safe to Visit? How Safe? Where is Safe?"; "Credit crunch advice: Where is safe for your cash?"; "The Safety of Community, or, Where Is Safe for Bisexuals?"; I'd say from that that it feels that "Where is Safe?" as a stand-alone question needs some context (as does "How Safe?").

    "Where is it safe?" does not strike me as necessary in those contexts; "Where is it safe for your cash?" seems slightly less right than "Where is safe for your cash?". But "Where is safe" as an assertion doesn't work, whereas "Nowhere is safe" does; "Nowhere is safe?" as a question works too, short for "You're telling me/Is it the case that nowhere is safe?"

    As for "no place" in Britain, the specific term "No Place Like Home" comes from the song Home! Sweet Home!, written by an American (lyrics) and a Brit (melody), and has been co-opted in various British guises, eg an album by Scottish band Big Country, a 1980s BBC TV sitcom, and a John Wyndham short story collection called No Place Like Earth.

  119. Faldone said,

    November 9, 2010 @ 9:39 am


    I'll add that nowhere fails one of the other tests for preposition-hood, namely that it can't be modified by right (at least not in my own idiolect).

    My memory has it that the right test is a sufficient condition for preposition-hood but not a necessary condition. I am not a fan of the Pullum/Huddleston transmogrification of the definition of preposition.

  120. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 9, 2010 @ 10:01 am

    Having been told by some fellow AmE speakers that "nowhere is safe" sounded totally unremarkable, I decided to do a smidgen of corpus research, and looked at the first 100 hits for "nowhere is" from COCA. Subject to the inherent risk of having missed something in a quick visual inspection, it looks like exactly zero of them reflect the "nowhere is safe" usage, i.e. with "nowhere" functioning as a a noun in subject position. There are a couple uses where "is" follows a fixed/idiomatic PrepP with "nowhere" as the object, e.g. "“Veronica Lake all of a sudden out of nowhere is singing in a nightclub,” plus one with the proper name "Bridge to Nowhere" (subject of an already-largely-forgotten political controversy) in subject position. Except for one obvious transcription error ("nowhere is site" for "nowhere in sight"), the remaining 95 or so hits are all instances in which an adverbial "nowhere" has been fronted for emphasis. E.g., "“nowhere is the impact of change more evident than on the current debate in health care” or “nowhere is there an explanation of the assumption that men must only seek women.”

    By contrast, pulling up the COCA hits for "nothing is" and "nobody is" shows that the noun-in-subject-position usage is ubiquitous for those no- words. That this usage is MIA for the first hundred hits on "nowhere is" doesn't per se demonstrate that it's ungrammatical, of course, but maybe that it's unusual enough to be marked or odd-sounding without a specific context justifying it? And a lot of the fronted-adverb constructions have dummy subjects like "it" or "there" which add no semantic value, which may be potential evidence of passive resistance to accepting "nowhere" as a noun in subject position. (The one hit I came up with after a search of the massive corpus of rock song lyrics buried in my memory was "Nowhere is there warmth to be found / Among those afraid of losing their ground" from "Eight Miles High.")

    I would be happy to be pointed to evidence that I've picked the wrong empirical test and the nowhere-as-syntactic-subject construction is more common in AmE that this quick check would suggest.

  121. Ken Brown said,

    November 9, 2010 @ 11:04 am

    It gets worse :-)

    "How gloriously the sun doth shine, how pleasant is the air.
    I'd rather rest on my true love's breast, than any other where."

    (Searching for Lambs, collected by Cecil Sharp in abut 1916)

    Obviously not quite anybody's colloquial English, even if versified by Anon.

    "Otherwhere" as a single word gets 65,000 Google hits – but then "neverwhere" gets five times that and they are all references to one TV program and novel by Neil Gaiman. So I doubt if that means much.

  122. Aviad said,

    November 9, 2010 @ 12:09 pm

    In my humble opinion, most of the discussion here is off track.
    The awkwardness of "nowhere is safe" is due to information structural reasons: "is safe" is an individual-level predicate, whose subject is generally interpreted as a topic.
    However, the intended reading of "nowhere is safe" is one in which "nowhere" is the focus, rather than the topic (being non-referential, it cannot be a topic). This requires speakers to switch their default information structure, and some find it easier than others to do so.
    Consider in this context (1) vs. (2), where the individual-level predicate "is altruistic" seems to force the topic reading of "firemen" and therefore rules out (2a), in which it is not a topic:
    (1) Firemen are available.
    a. There are available firemen.
    b. Firemen have the property that they are available.
    (2) Firemen are altruistic.
    a. *There are altruistic firemen.
    b. Firemen have the property that they are altruistic.
    Accordingly, the variation brought up here is not geographical, social, etc., but rather similar to the variation we find in how well people can accommodate presuppositions. I suspect that most, if not all, hypothesized idiosyncratic dialects of this type simply reflect speakers' differing contextualizations of possible readings for sentences.

  123. Picky said,

    November 9, 2010 @ 2:58 pm

    On the whole, well, possibly, except, old bean, for the lack of awkwardness in any way whatsoever metowards. What does that do for my lack of information structural reasons? Just means my contextualization differs differently, I guess.

  124. Ethan said,

    November 9, 2010 @ 3:39 pm

    @Aviad: I don't see the relevance of altruistic firemen. More to the point would be an explication of why you (I gather) see a difference between:
    – Nothing was available
    – Nowhere was available
    – Nobody was available
    All three are equally fine to my ears. It is apparent that for some other native speakers the "nowhere" case is odd-man-out. But I don't see how your suggested topic/predicate distinction enters into it.

    I found an earlier suggestion more plausible, that in US speech the frequency of "nowhere" is depressed because the alternative "no place" is more common. I don't know if that holds up to examination, but it has the virtue of being testable. Of course less frequent does not mean awkward, let alone incorrect.

  125. Aviad said,

    November 9, 2010 @ 4:05 pm

    @Ethan: The difference between the three sentences you give fits in nicely with my explanation. Notice that, as pointed out above, (1) and (2) can be an answer to a question, and therefore focused; this is much more difficult with (3). In other words, it's difficult to set up the context which would give you the necessary information structure for (3).
    (1) Q: What was available?
    A: Nothing was available.
    (2) Q: Who was available?
    A: Nobody was available.
    (3) Q: ??Where was available?
    A: ?Nowhere was available.
    I think the question in (4) is better, which would account for the different status of "no place".
    (3) Q: ?What place was available?
    A: No place was available.
    Frequency, it seems to me, would just lead to circular reasoning (is it unacceptable because it's rare or rare because people find it awkward?) and doesn't provide an explanation.

  126. Ethan said,

    November 9, 2010 @ 4:38 pm

    Notice that in your questions you substitute the more natural "who" for "*what body", and "what" for "what thing" without comment. But then you cavil at substituting "what place" for "*what where" in the parallel question. To me, "nowhere was available" is the most natural answer to "what place was available?", or more likely to "which places were available?". Are you arguing it is a crucial difference that it requires a two-word interrogative form rather than a one-word interrogative form?

  127. GeorgeW said,

    November 9, 2010 @ 5:21 pm

    @Aviad and Ethan:

    The more natural Q&A to me (Floridian) would be:

    Q – Was anywhere available?
    A – No, nowhere (was available)

  128. dw said,

    November 9, 2010 @ 6:17 pm


    Accordingly, the variation brought up here is not geographical, social, etc., but rather simlar to the variation we find in how well people can accommodate presuppositions

    How do you explain the fact that every single commenter from outside North America finds "nowhere is safe" completely unexceptionable, while a decent proportion of those from North America do find it odd or ungrammatical?

    [(myl) Sampling bias? Groupthink? Or maybe I'm wrong. But in general, people have found that judgments about these pragmatically-influenced quantifier-negation scope issues (see e.g. Jackendoff 1972 for an early treatment in terms of "presuppositional set") are not very stable (see e.g. Labov 1972). This issue deserves a post to itself.]

  129. Aviad said,

    November 9, 2010 @ 6:29 pm

    @Ethan and GeorgeW: The questions I gave represent the implicit questions under discussion which speakers generate when they encounter the declarative examples. That is, I'm working backwards from the declarative – what's a likely implicit question for "nowhere is available" – rather than trying to figure out what the most natural answer to "where/what place is available" is. Speakers try to contextualize "nowhere is available" as an answer to "where is available", and some fail.
    In any case, it's not about the length of the question word. The difference is likely a function of the specificity of wh-expression and answer; adding an explicit restrictor ("what place", "no place") makes it more specific.

    @dw: I'd be wary of considering a sample of speakers here as representing anything. If you go back to the work Mark refers to in one of the first comments, regarding quantifier-negation interactions in English, you'll find that researchers originally thought that this was also due to geographical variation. Labov showed that it was entirely a function of the methodology used, along with variation among speakers that is not grammatical in nature. Newmeyer has a succinct discussion of such cases in his 1983 book.

  130. dw said,

    November 9, 2010 @ 7:50 pm

    @myl and @Aviad:

    I understand that a poll of Language Log commenters doesn't constitute a scientific study. But several commenters have suggested a plausible hypothesis that would explain why we might expect regional variation in reactions to this specific phrase:

    North American English, but not other varieties of English, allows "no place" as a stylish and idiomatic* substitute for "nowhere" in phrases like "nowhere is safe". Some North American English speakers go further and internalize a rule that excludes "nowhere" from such positions, replacing it entirely with "no place".

    *"No place is safe" would be grammatical in my (originally BrE) variety, but no more stylish or idiomatic than, say, "no person is safe" (for "no one is safe").

  131. Acilius said,

    November 9, 2010 @ 10:26 pm

    I don't see anything awkward about "nowhere is safe." If the dictionary definitions of "nowhere" to which Mark Liberman refers in the post were accurate, however, it would be awkward. So, if the usage is unobjectionable, the definitions must be inadequate.

    The first revision that comes to my mind, as I suggested above at 2:52 PM on 8 November, is to declare "nowhere" to be the logical equivalent of the negation of a particular kind of predication. Thus, "nowhere is X" would mean "It is not the case that there is a y such that y is a place and y has property X." So, "Nowhere is safe" makes sense because we understand it to be logically equivalent to "It is not the case that there is a y such that y is a place and y is safe." On this understanding, we avoid including "nowhere" on a list of places, as jokes like the one at the end of the post pretend we might do.

  132. Aviad said,

    November 9, 2010 @ 10:58 pm

    @dw: The geographical hypothesis does not answer the question why "nowhere is safe" would be awkward in the first place. As I commented above, you're getting into circular reasoning by stating that it's because it's less frequent or more contextually limited than "no place is safe".
    Besides, nowhere is clearly fine in many other contexts for NA English, e.g. "road to nowhere", "This is going nowhere". I'm doubtful that there's an internalized rule of NA English specific to nowhere in the subject position of copular constructions, and in any case, even the skewed sample here doesn't particularly support the hypothesis: there are many NA posters above who don't find the sentence awkward.

  133. dw said,

    November 9, 2010 @ 11:53 pm


    I must be having trouble understanding your posts. I confess to being an amateur in this area, and I simply don't follow your claim that the hypothesis I outlined in my earlier comment "does not answer the question why 'nowhere is safe' would be awkward in the first place." Furthermore, I see absolutely nothing circular about the hypothesis or the reasons offered for supporting it. If you would like to spell out exactly why the hypothesis doesn't explain anything, or why it's circular, I'd be very interested.

    You say that you're "doubtful that there's an internalized rule of NA English specific to nowhere in the subject position of copular constructions" (although you don't give a reason). Assume, for the sake of argument, that speakers who have "no place" as an idiomatic alternative to (some uses of) "nowhere" nevertheless continue to see "no place" as two distinct words, while "nowhere" functions as an indivisible unit. This seems a reasonable assumption because the meaning of "nowhere" is no longer recoverable from two distinct words "no" + "where", while the meaning of "no place" _is_ recoverable from "no" + place".


    No place is safe

    matches a template "no X is Y", where X and Y can be filled in with a wide variety of words ("no city is safe", "no woman is safe", "no secret is safe", etc.).

    On the other hand,

    *Road to no place

    is odd because it would be a noun phrase of the form "X to no Y": I was unable to find any noun phrase of this form at COCA.

    I've gone on long enough, and I'm sure I'm missing some knockdown objection to these thoughts. But if you would care to educate me I'd be grateful.

  134. Mark F. said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:58 am

    I like dw's analysis.

    I also think the "the place known as Nowhere is safe" interpretation is made a little more salient by the typography. Everyone agrees, as far as I can tell, that "Nobody is perfect" is totally unambiguous. But if you see

    . . . . . . NOBODY
    . . . . . . . . . . . . . is perfect

    it becomes maybe easier to reanalyze "nobody" as a name of a specific person.

    Finally, Merriam-Webster doesn't give a definition of "nowhere" that allows "Nowhere is safe." Their noun definition is:

    1: a nonexistent place
    2: an unknown, distant, or obscure place or state

    So there's pretty good evidence for a dialect difference.

  135. PeteBeijing said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 2:46 am

    I'm going to query something from the original post:

    'Rather, the catch-phrase means that "it's not the case that any place is safe".'

    I don't think this is correct. I think what you're trying to say is that the catchphrase means "it is not the case that there is a safe place", or, if you prefer, "it is not the case that there is a place which is safe".

    Logically speaking, your original explanation of the catch-phrase is the opposite of "any place is safe"; the phrase "it's not the case that" acts as a straightforward negation of whatever follows it.

    But the poster is not denying the truth of the statement "any place is safe" (which if untrue would still allow for there being some safe places but some unsafe ones). Rather it is denying the truth of the statement "there is a safe place". No, it wishes to tell us, it is not the case that there is any safe place at all! And with that, horror is struck mercilessly into our hearts, and we willingly cough up our pound (/dollar/yuan) to go and be scared out of our minds.

    And just to confirm what lots of people have said above, as a Brit there is nothing unnatural about this usage.

    p.s. Fun blog! First time stumbling across it, but it's been added to my favourites :)

  136. Ken Brown said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 11:06 am

    So Merriam-Webster is wrong then.

    Thats easier to believe than the hypothesis that all these comments are from people who don't know their own language.

  137. Aviad said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 11:12 am

    @dw: There are two problems with your analysis:
    1. Judgments don't reflect the results of a process of template matching, as you seem to assume.
    2. Your templates, I repeat, don't explain anything. You say that "road to no place" is odd because there are no forms "X to no Y"; by doing so, you've replaced one description with another. This is what I mean by circularity. What we'd like to know is why "X to no Y" is unacceptable, assuming this is true.
    I'd recommend disabusing yourself of misconceptions by reading any introductory linguistics textbook.
    @Mark: Analyses are not evaluated according to whether or not we like them. Your appeal to the dictionary is a non-starter; it's analogous to telling an ornithologist a new species of bird he thinks he's discovered doesn't exist because it isn't in the bird guide.
    This is my last posting on the topic, in the hope that readers will recognize that linguistic analysis is not a matter of intuition or taste. Just as I would educate myself before claiming to know anything in chemistry or biology, I think it's not too much to ask that everyone do the same regarding language.

  138. dw said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:53 pm

    I am going to remain polite and respectful despite the example set by your last post.

    There is a difference between "doesn't explain ANYTHING" and "doesn't explain EVERYTHING". There is also a distinction between a reductive explanation and a circular explanation.

    A theory that states, for example, that some speakers internalize a rule that "nowhere" is excluded from places where "no place" could replace it is not circular; it is reductive. The problem of deciding where "nowhere" is permitted is reduced, in part, to the problem of deciding where "no place" is permitted. For such a statement to be circular, it would also have to define the places where "no place" is permitted in terms of the places where "nowhere" is permitted".

    To say that such a theory "doesn't explain anything" is plainly false. That would be like complaining that the standard model of particle physics "doesn't explain anything" because it doesn't explain why the fundamental variables have the values they do.

    You may want to consult the Wikipedia article on Circular reasoning.

  139. Mark F. said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 3:45 pm

    Ken Brown — No, I just thought maybe M-W failed to pick up the subject-position Nowhere because it was less common in their US sources.

    However, it turns out Collins also doesn't give a definition that fits that usage, which does pretty much wreck my line of reasoning.

  140. Pete said,

    November 11, 2010 @ 1:36 pm

    Any native speaker of English will tell you that "Nowhere is safe" feels perfectly grammatical. Only a prescriptivist could logically deduce that such a natural sentence was ungrammatical.

    If your dictionary doesn't allow for this sentence then your dictionary is wrong. Or more likely it's just omitted the example that would have convinced you that it's OK.

    This just goes to show the ridiculousness of using dictionaries, etymologies and logic to decide what's grammatical, instead of the in-built grammar checker that every NS has in his head.

  141. Ellen K said,

    November 11, 2010 @ 3:56 pm

    Making claims about what "any native speaker of English" thinks is even worse than making precriptivist claims about what's grammatical.

  142. Mark F. said,

    November 11, 2010 @ 9:08 pm

    Pete — I must have given the impression that I'm one of those people who think that dictionaries determine the language, rather than the other way around. That's not the case at all. I wasn't trying to decide whether the construction was grammatical; I was just trying to see whether there was any evidence about regional differences in usage. Commercial dictionaries are a blunt tool for that purpose, so it's not surprising I didn't find a good answer. Especially considering that most of the Americans who commented seemed to find the construction pretty unremarkable too.

    The dictionaries did, however, prove your point that they can't be used as the final arbiter of usage.

  143. Ray Dillinger said,

    November 13, 2010 @ 10:05 pm

    I think words like "nowhere", "nobody", "nothing", etc, are interesting in themselves.

    They are nouns (or noun-ish things) whose entire point is that they DON'T refer to a "person, place or thing." It is difficult to state our complete rules for their grammatical usage. I would really like to see a comparison of the way different languages handle "Negative pronouns" like this, including a survey of how commonly they occur in different languages.

    But in English it seems to me that their use in the subject position is accepted as a negation of the proposition that would be formed by a use of an indefinite pronoun in that position. Thus "Nowhere is safe" ==> NEG("Somewhere is safe") ==> "There is no safe place." This is, to me, easy to understand and grammatical. But I probably wouldn't use it. It doesn't sound wrong, just … somehow off, or rushed, or stressed, or something, to my American dialect.

    Although I can't quite say why it seems so, it sounds to me as if someone who would say it might also say something like

    *"There is no safe where."

    This latter is clearly wrong. But it's wrong because it violates a different rule.

  144. Ray32 said,

    November 14, 2010 @ 10:58 am

    This gets you going, but when Adidas uses the slogan "Impossible is nothing", that's not a big deal? :)

  145. Foster Boondoggle said,

    November 14, 2010 @ 8:42 pm

    Apropos of the conversation with the precocious five-year-old, I can't believe no one has mentioned Lewis Carroll:

    `I see nobody on the road,' said Alice.

    `I only wish I had such eyes,' the King remarked in a fretful tone. `To be able to see Nobody! And at the distance too! Why, it's as much as I can do to see real people, by this light!'

    `Who did you pass on the road?' the King went on, holding out his hand to the Messenger for some hay.

    `Nobody,' said the Messenger.

    `Quite right,' said the King: `this young lady saw him too. So of course Nobody walks slower than you.'

    `I do my best,' the Messenger said in a sullen tone. `I'm sure nobody walks much faster than I do!'

    `He can't do that,' said the King, `or else he'd have been here first.

  146. Rhodia said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 12:22 pm

    CanE here. The phrase sounds off to me. "No place is safe" would be okay, but I think what would sound more natural to me would be "It isn't safe anywhere".

  147. Simon said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 5:49 pm

    Not only does "nowhere is safe" sound perfectly fine to me, but I actually have the perception that this is a common phrase!

    You know, stereotypical villain, "Run! Hahaha, yes run! See how much it helps you! Nowhere is safe! Nowhere!"

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