No what zone?

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Michael Moore asks:

I wonder what your opinion is about no fly zones. Totally unambiguous (well, unless you think flies are involved), as succinct as possible, and also very irregular. I can't think of a rephrasing that would deliver the message with the same clarity. It seems that we need to sacrifice conventional rules to make a good point.

Apparently some editors at the New York Times are also worried about convention in this matter, because that publication somewhat erratically deploys "no-flight zone" in place of "no-fly zone". Thus David Sanger and Thom Shankar, "Gates Warns of Risks of a No-Flight Zone", 3/2/2011, where "no-flight zone" occurs nine times, and "no-fly zone" occurs four times. The difference? "No-fly" is in all and only the quotes (from Senator Kerry and Defense Secretary Gates), while "no-flight" occurs in all and only the unquoted text.

This is not a consistent editorial practice, however. We also see things like John Broder, "U.S. and Allies Weigh Libya No-Fly Zone", NYT 2/28/2011, where the score is "no-fly zone" 5 (both quoted and not), "no-flight zone" 0.

This editorial uncertainty goes back to the  no-fly zones imposed during the first Gulf war. Thus in Michael Gordon, "British, French and U.S. Agree To Hit Iraqi Aircraft In The South", NYT 8/19/1992, there's one instance of "no-flight zone":

The same article contains five instances of "'no fly' zone", but in all cases, the "no fly" part is put in quotes, as for example here:

This episode, starting in 1992, seems to be when the phrase "no fly zone" (however punctuated) first came into widespread use. However, there were sporadic and more limited uses in earlier periods, for example in reference to restrictions on American bombing during the Vietnam war. From Mark Clodfelter, "The limits of air power: the American bombing of North Vietnam", 1989:

On 27 October, the chiefs urged Johnson to reduce the Hanoi "no fly" zone to a 3-mile radius.

Whenever "no fly" as a modifier was first used, the model for it was probably "no go". The OED has an entry for "no go", documenting predicative, modifier, and nominal uses back to 1825. The meaning is somewhat variable, but is usually in the range of "of no use; impossible; hopeless; indecisive; impracticable":

1825 C. M. Westmacott Eng. Spy I. 178 It won't do, no go Dick.
1829 T. Creevey Let. 20 Oct. in J. Gore Creevey's Life & Times (1934) xiv. 311 According to the Earl and myself, Fanny Kemble is no go.
1848 Thackeray Vanity Fair xxxiv. 305 You want to trot me out, but it's no go.
1888 J. R. Lowell Heartsease & Rue 207 ‘You must rise’, says the leaven. ‘I can't’, says the dough; ‘Just examine my bumps, and you'll see it's no go’.

1829 Sporting Mag. 13 242 It would be pleasing‥if some of the followers of the gallant varmint were to notice the blank days they have in this battue country, stating the names of the constantly ‘no go’ coverts.
1847 Blackwood's Edinb. Mag. 62 429/2 The jaundiced editor of some new no-go periodical.

The use of "no go" as a modifier to indicate forbidden areas was common in discussing the Ulster troubles in the 1970s. Thus Robin Evelegh, "Peace keeping in a democratic society: the lessons of Northern Ireland", 1978:

Lord Widgery, in his report on 'Bloody Sunday' at paragraphs 10 to 12, describes how the Bogside and Creggan areas were allowed to become 'no go' areas in which 'the law was not effectively enforced' and 'the terrorists were still firmly in control.' This did not happen by change or by the force majeur of an insurrection, but as the result of an agreement made in the autumn of 1971 between the General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland, Lieutenant-General Sir Harry Tuzo, and a self-appointed group of prominent citizens from the Creggan and the Bogside. The 'no-go' situation was well known and must have been authorized by the Cabinet. There is a plethora of evidence for it in the press, including pictures of IRA control points with armed sentries at the entry roads to the 'no-go' areas.

Uneasiness about "no fly zone" is not limited to the NYT, but it remains a minority attitude. The current Google News index yields 31 instances of "no flight zone", of which 9 are in NYT articles, versus 689 (actually shown) or perhaps 12,963 (unreliably "estimated") instances of "no fly zone".


  1. Bob Lieblich said,

    March 3, 2011 @ 8:39 am

    No kidding.

    [(myl) Don't you mean "no kid"?

    Most expressions of the form "no X" have X as a nominal of some kind: e.g. a "no parking" sign, a "no wake area", "no shirt, no shoes, no service", or Bill O'Reilly's "No Spin Zone" vs. Stephen Colbert's "No Fact Zone".

    The thing about "no go" and "no fly" and a few others is that X is a verb. Sorry for not making that explicit — I thought that it was too obvious to need saying, but apparently not.]

  2. JimG said,

    March 3, 2011 @ 9:00 am

    No dice. No way, nohow.
    [(myl) "Dice" and "way" are nouns, and thus irrelevant. "Nohow" is a negative-concord variant of "anyhow". Please pay attention, folks! Further random samples from the list of thousands of common expressions involving "no X", where X is a noun, will be deleted.]

    The US military's security and safety rules for nuclear weapons included the no-lone zone.

    [(myl) Right. This is an instance of "no X" where X is an adjective. It seems to be motivated as a clever rhyming substitution for "two-man rule". It's likely that "no go" was also motivated or at least boosted by considerations of euphony, but this doesn't really apply to "no fly".]

  3. Norman Gray said,

    March 3, 2011 @ 9:12 am

    I associate this with the seaspeak-like contexts where "no-" is used as an uncomplicated negator prefix, modifying some other unambiguous term.

    Moderately topical is the pair of phrases "go" and "no-go" in for example rocket launches: (as the posting notes). Here, as with seaspeak, concision and a need for a complete lack of ambiguity result in consciously simplified grammar and vocabulary.

    I'd guess there are some of the same requirements in the military contexts where "no-fly" presumably originated, and so it has the right frisson of decisive authority to make it a prime morsel to be picked up by journalists.

    The uses of "no-go" quoted in the post aren't quite the same senses as "no-go" in the launch case. For the launch, they seem to have an imperative sense, where "no-go" is a veto from the manager of a subsystem, and "go" is something like a declaration of the absence of a veto.

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 3, 2011 @ 9:16 am

    Isn't "spin" in the political-flackery sense both a specialized sense of a verb and a related noun? How do we tell whether O'Reilly's "No Spin Zone" includes the verb or the noun? To the extent the phrase was modeled on, and intended to allude to, "no-fly zone," perhaps it was the former.

    [(myl) You're right — we can't really tell in that case whether spin is a noun or a verb. In fact, the same is technically true of go, which has long had some nominal uses ("have a go", "a rum go", "the come and go of …", etc.).]

  5. Linda said,

    March 3, 2011 @ 9:23 am

    But isn't "no flight zone" ambiguous? I read it as a zone from which it is forbidden to flee.

    [(myl) Well, pretty much everything is ambiguous. A "no fly zone" could be an area from which certain insects are excluded, or in which trousers with front openings are not allowed, or an area where certain fishing techniques are prohibited.]

  6. Mark F. said,

    March 3, 2011 @ 9:34 am

    I guess "no-show" is an approximate analogue, but "no-show" is a nominal while "no-fly" is a modifier.

  7. Tim Leonard said,

    March 3, 2011 @ 9:36 am

    "No step" is very common.

    (I've also seen, and even used, the variant "NO ON", which has the property that it can be read–though not necessarily understood–when viewed from above or below, as will happen when it's painted on something you might walk across from either of two directions.)

    [(myl) In addition to "no show" and "no step", there's also "no idle zone", "no wait loan", "no-cook recipes", a series of child-rearing books called "the no-cry X solution" for a half-a-dozen value of X, and so on. Verbal examples are definitely Out There.]

  8. MJP said,

    March 3, 2011 @ 10:09 am

    There's also the no fly list maintained by the FBI's terrorist screening center.

    And now the no-eat list. Wanna hot dog? No can do.

  9. GeorgeW said,

    March 3, 2011 @ 10:27 am

    It seems that no-go, no-fly and their sisters may have contations of negative consequences that no X-ing don't have.

  10. Lee Morgan said,

    March 3, 2011 @ 10:50 am

    See also: no-knead bread, which apparently the NYT has no problems with.

  11. Dan Milton said,

    March 3, 2011 @ 10:50 am

    The planes that don't fly into a no fly, no-fly, no flight zone probably have "NO STEP" stenciled on sensitive parts of their wing surface.

  12. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    March 3, 2011 @ 11:24 am

    Are there expressions in air traffic control terminology that are grammatically similar to no-fly zone?

  13. Yao Ziyuan said,

    March 3, 2011 @ 11:26 am

    Wikipedia says both are OK but obviously "no-fly zone" is more common: "A no-fly zone (or no-flight zone) is a territory over which aircraft are not permitted to fly." —

  14. David Eddyshaw said,

    March 3, 2011 @ 12:29 pm

    "no go" is not recent, anyhow:

  15. David Eddyshaw said,

    March 3, 2011 @ 12:33 pm

    Sorry, I see you're there way ahead of me. Should read more carefully.

    McNeice was an Ulsterman, of course. Don't know if "no go" is/was especially common there …

  16. Nijma said,

    March 3, 2011 @ 12:40 pm

    Maybe the "no flight" terminology is meant to distance the Libya policy from the Iraq "no fly" policy, which could be viewed by some as an unsuccessful policy since it was associated with ten years of increasingly resented sanctions followed by a land invasion.

    My first impression of "no go" was that it is a noun, similar to "a non starter". "A no go" gets over 8 million ghits.

  17. Nathan said,

    March 3, 2011 @ 12:44 pm

    @Nijma: The problem with your idea is that the official terminology still seems to be "no-fly". It's the New York Times that says "no-flight".

  18. John Lawler said,

    March 3, 2011 @ 12:59 pm

    Pretty clearly, no(-)fly has become a lexical item, like no(-)go and no-knead before it. And now it can be used, like virtually all English lexical items, as a noun or as an adjective. This is in a certain sense unremarkable; what always surprises me is how much fuss attends it among the Editing classes, as witness the NYT policy.

    I blame the educational practices of Anglophone schools, which still teach their most successful students, as Mr. Gradgrind did, that Grammar consists of the unfailing ability to label each word in a sentence by Part of Speech and to recite the Lawful uses for each Part.

  19. Nijma said,

    March 3, 2011 @ 1:07 pm

    @Nathan, yes, I would interpret this as NYT (or a particular writer or editor) favoring the policy, or trying to push public opinion in this direction, but I may be reading too much into it. Still, "no-fly" is the familiar language of the 90's, so why would they shy away from the familiar language on the brink of a possible military intervention if not to differentiate from a previous similar policy?

  20. R. Henderson said,

    March 3, 2011 @ 1:46 pm

    No-bake cookies were quite the thing when I was about seven.

  21. Sam said,

    March 3, 2011 @ 2:06 pm

    no-bake cheesecake?

  22. Sniffnoy said,

    March 3, 2011 @ 2:16 pm

    I don't think "no wait loan" is actually an example; "wait" is easily interpreted as a noun there.

  23. mollymooly said,

    March 3, 2011 @ 3:14 pm

    @Sniffnoy I suspect that, in advertising slogans or brandnames like "no wait", "no rinse", or "no iron", I instinctively interpret the tedium-words as verbs rather than nouns (where there is ambiguity of class — "no hassle" is clearly a noun).

    There is also "no win situation", the opposite of which seems to be "no lose situation" rather than "no loss situation".

  24. J Lee said,

    March 3, 2011 @ 3:57 pm

    there is also the informal 'a no can do' where the auxiliary uses the wrong negator in order to comply with the format of the idiom no + V. this one seems pretty clearly from another set phrase, the elliptical response to a request "Can do."

  25. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 3, 2011 @ 6:21 pm

    No-stick (cookware) is common. I think the manufacturers mostly use non-stick, but *non-fly zone doesn't exist.

    My inner peever would prefer no-flying zone to no-flight zone. Eight results at Google News, four of which are isolated phrases in non-English articles. One of the four in English is a peeve. Anyway, the question is academic.

    There are, of course, insect repellents, insect-proof clothes, etc., that are called No-Fly Zone or use the phrase in their advertising. While looking for those, I saw one use of no-fly zone referring to underwear.

    The odd thing, of course, is that you can say No flying is allowed or There are no flights there or things like that, but no fly is grammatical only as an adjective. So why wasn't the adjective built on an existing phrase? Based on no go, though that's not an attributive adjective?

  26. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 3, 2011 @ 6:56 pm

    I wrote "*non-fly zone doesn't exist," but this is true only if you don't count a fair number of usages such as this as evidence for existence.

  27. mgh said,

    March 3, 2011 @ 11:32 pm

    no-hit games and no-bid contracts could be "hit" and "bid" as nouns but I think they're verbs

    (for example "The last nine-inning no-hitter in FIU history happened on May 11, 1979 when Chris Lein no-hit Eckerd College.")

  28. KevinM said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 10:56 am

    Bob Marley declared a no woman, no cry zone.

  29. Nicholas Waller said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 3:28 pm

    My father flew for Kuwait Airways 1956-1974 and for at least part of the time their strap line, at least on their luggage tags, was FLY THE BEST FLY EVER FLEW, and the picture evidence is here.

  30. un malpaso said,

    March 5, 2011 @ 12:43 am

    "No win situation"?

  31. Qov said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 2:22 am

    I can't think of any phrases in ATC aviation English analogous to "no-fly zone." That's not even the term that would be used between pilots and controllers. We would call it "restricted airspace," "the class F area," "the MOA" "the NOTAMed area" or name it specifically by whatever designation of letters and numbers it had.

    The word "no" isn't even used on the radio, because it's too easily lost. I would say "negative" for example "negative GPS" to indicate something I lacked, or "unable" (e.g. "unable 250 knots") if I were asked to do something impossible, unsafe or against the rules for my operation.

    Instructions like No step, no push, no tow are painted on the aircraft, but I can't ever remember hearing versions of them aloud.

  32. Steve H. said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 5:13 pm

    @Qov: As a pilot, I agree with your point, but I think just as you mentioned "no step", "no push", and "no tow" painted on aircraft, I can easily imagine "no fly" printed on a military nav map. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that this was the origin of the phrase.

  33. Yao Ziyuan said,

    March 20, 2011 @ 2:36 pm

    As the allied forces have established a no-fly zone in Libya now, I recalled this post and have some new thought: If you wonder whether "no-fly zone" or "no-flight zone" is more accepted, no doubt it's "no-fly zone". It's already a fact, and analysis on English is descriptive rather than prescriptive. If you wonder why they used "fly" instead of "flight" when coining this term, now I have an idea: "fly" is a more "basic" word that is more likely to be understood than "flight" by people in target countries where such a zone is proposed or implemented (Iraq 1991-1993, Bosnia and Herzegovina 1993–1995, Libya 2011), considering these target countries don't speak English as their native language. In other words, it's a matter of pragmatics.

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