*Neither Sentence Nor Sentence?

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Today in Seth Cable's seminar on Montague's Universal grammar, he gave out a problem set that included the task of adding "Neither Mitt smokes nor Barack smokes" to the little fragment of English that had been developed. And in the discussion of the problem set, it turned out that I was the only one in the class who seemed to have any doubts about whether the sentence "Neither Mitt smokes nor Barack smokes" was grammatical.
My own intuition was that it had to be "Neither does Mitt smoke nor does Barack smoke", though that sounded a little funny too.

So out of curiosity I just checked in the big Huddleston and Pullum Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. I was afraid the question was too arcane to be covered there; but to my happy surprise they do actually discuss it, on pages 1308-9 in their chapter on coordination.

It [neither] can occur (like either) in multiple as well as the more usual binary coordination, and (like both) it cannot normally occur initially in a coordination of main clauses.
[48] … iii *Neither did he oversleep nor was his bus late.
(What strikes me in that example is that they did do subject-aux inversion, but they still find it ungrammatical. Presumably they would find it even worse without the inversion.)
Then they go on:
2. Position of neither
Like both and either, neither can occur to the left or right of its basic position.
[49] i. This serves the interests neither of [producers] [nor consumers].
       ii [We are neither trying to keep out immigrants,] [nor are we favouring the well-to-do].
Example [i] is again less favoured than of neither producers nor consumers (or neither of producers nor of consumers). The position of neither in [ii],however, is obligatory in view of the ungrammaticality of *Neither are we trying to keep out immigrants, nor are we favouring the well-to-do (cf. [48iii]), but such structures are usually avoided in favour of subclausal coordination (We are [neither trying to keep out immigrants,] [nor favouring the well-to-do]).
So there it is. I don't know whether there's a UK-US split, or an older-younger generation split, but the class participants who found the neither S nor S construction perfectly fine were all Americans at least 30 or more years younger than me. I was surprised that no one else found the Neither S nor S construction without inversion a little ungrammatical, and I'm also surprised (though less so) that Huddleston and Pullum find it ungrammatical even with inversion. And I take it all the other native speakers of English in the class were just as surprised that I didn't find it perfectly grammatical. That's interesting to me — I suspect the construction is pretty rare, and that as kids we don't get much relevant data – but somehow we do end up having judgments, and now they seem to be changing.
In any case, it's nicely Montagovian to treat the construction as perfectly normal. In English as a Formal Language, he purposely used the "archaic style of negation" John loves Jane not so as to avoid the complications of do-support, and allowing "Neither Mitt smokes nor Barack smokes" certainly does avoid some complications.



45 Comments »

  1. Laura Morland said,

    November 8, 2019 @ 3:25 am

    Is it possible that the "neither… nor" construction has fallen out of everyday use to the extent that young people are simply unable to judge whether such a phrase is grammatical or not?

    And forgive me for skimming your post (it's quite late here), but whither the more normal (to me) construction, "Neither Mitt nor Barack smokes"? If I had on my editing cap I would certainly strike out the first instance of the verb.

  2. Simon said,

    November 8, 2019 @ 3:32 am

    To my UK eyes/ears the phrase is formally correct, but is just so clumsy that it jars.

  3. Rob Grayson said,

    November 8, 2019 @ 3:58 am

    Per Laura Morland above, surely the only formally correct solution here is "Neither Mitt nor Barack smokes"?

  4. Suzanne Valkemirer said,

    November 8, 2019 @ 4:02 am

    @Barbara: Regarding your remark that "My own intuition was that it had to be 'Neither does Mitt smoke nor does Barack smoke', though that sounded a little funny too," it sounds a little funny probably because the same verb is used twice.

    If the sentence read "Neither does Mitt smoke nor does Barack drink," you would presumably find nothing odd about it.

    If the verb is repeated, the right wording is "Neither Mitt nor Barack smokes."

  5. Simon Wright said,

    November 8, 2019 @ 4:19 am

    "Neither does Mitt smoke nor does Barack drink" might be grammatically acceptable, but it's extremely clumsy (to these UK ears)

  6. Anna said,

    November 8, 2019 @ 4:32 am

    English is not my first language but I'd say "Neither Mitt nor Barack smokes" without a second thought. I fail so see what's odd about this sentence.

    But in Icelandic the construction is identical (Hvorki Mitt né Barack reykir), so perhaps that influences my percerption.

    But I find the following a bit dodgy, personally I never use hvorki-né-né:

    En hvorki hann, né þjónar hans, né landslýðurinn hlýddi orðum Drottins, þeim er hann talaði fyrir munn Jeremía spámanns.

    (But neither he nor his servants nor the people of the land listened to the words of the Lord that he spoke through Jeremiah the prophet.)

  7. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    November 8, 2019 @ 4:48 am

    The CGEL is full of "normally" provisos, to the point that many paragraphs could be taken rather as stylistic (British?/literary?) advice.

  8. James said,

    November 8, 2019 @ 6:43 am

    Fascinating.

    My dialect (idiolect, to be safe! 59 year old American man) matches BP's. For me, 'neither' naturally coordinates noun phrases (so, "Neither Barack nor Mitt…", as other commenters have urged), not clauses, and the 'does'-support helps but not enough.

    I am going to ask a bunch of twenty-somethings today.

  9. James said,

    November 8, 2019 @ 6:55 am

    Ooooh, having just reread the OP, I should add that of course, it's also fine in my grammar for 'neither' to coordinate subclauses, as in Huddleston and Pullum's example,
    We are [neither trying to keep out immigrants,] [nor favouring the well-to-do].
    That one just didn't occur to me, which I guess is why they pay GP and RH the big bucks.

  10. Philip Anderson said,

    November 8, 2019 @ 8:04 am

    For me (British, 50+) it has to be "Neither M nor B smokes".

    But I hear nothing wrong with "*Neither did he oversleep nor was his bus late", although it sounds rather literary for the subject. For a more literary example: "neither may the sun overtake the moon, nor can the night usurp the time of day".

  11. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    November 8, 2019 @ 8:12 am

    @Philip Anderson

    Would you happen to have a copy of the book "Approximation to the Meanings of Universal Message, the Word of Allah"? Unfortunately my university library does not have access to it.

  12. Brian said,

    November 8, 2019 @ 8:22 am

    Thanks for covering this. The use of neither-nor and neither-or

  13. Philip Anderson said,

    November 8, 2019 @ 8:39 am

    @Antonio L. Banderas
    I am afraid not, I just found that text through Google. There are other translations of course.

  14. James said,

    November 8, 2019 @ 8:42 am

    Philip,
    The more 'literary' example works better for me. Because the auxiliaries are deontic modals, maybe?
    And compare the Jacobian,

    Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin.

    (Where the 'neither' has scope only over the second clause, and the first clause needs 'not' for its negation, just as it would be if the 'neither' were a 'nor'.)

  15. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    November 8, 2019 @ 9:26 am

    @James

    Any academic references elaborating why it's specifically deontic modals that improve overall grammaticality?

    Secondly, what are you referring to by "Jacobian"?

  16. John Shutt said,

    November 8, 2019 @ 10:01 am

    My own natural reaction to "Neither Mitt smokes nor Barack smokes" was that it was a noun phrase referring to a pair of two-word sentences. I thought it really should have been made easier to read by putting quotes around them: "Neither 'Mitt smokes' nor 'Barack smokes' ." I wondered what context such a noun phrase might sensibly fit into. It didn't even occur to me, until I'd read some of the subsequent discussion, that it might be taken as a statement about the behavior of Mitt and Barack, because it seemed so wildly implausible to me that anyone setting out to say something about their behavior would choose this phrasing.

  17. Rachael Churchill said,

    November 8, 2019 @ 10:14 am

    I also find the original sentence ungrammatical, and would prefer "Neither Mitt nor Barack smokes."

    @Antonio: Jacobian = "of James", in this case King James as in the King James Bible.

  18. Philip Anderson said,

    November 8, 2019 @ 10:26 am

    I don't think it's deontics specifically, but if the verbs are different after neither and nor, I prefer an auxiliary verb before the subject. I can accept "Neither does B smoke nor M drink".

  19. James said,

    November 8, 2019 @ 10:43 am

    No, Philip, no references at all; it was pure speculation.
    Deontic modals interact oddly with disjunction sometimes, as in free-choice permissions, and that just struck me. Now that I think about it, it's neither better nor worse for me with ability modals.
    On 'Jacobian', what Rachael Churchill said; the KJ bible often has an archaic-but-elegant feel.

  20. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    November 8, 2019 @ 11:30 am

    Jac·o·be·an (adjective)
    1. relating to King James I or to the period of his English reign, from 1603 to 1625
    Microsoft® Encarta® 2009

    Jacobi +‎ -an, after Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi, a German mathematician of the 19th century.

  21. Michael Wilson said,

    November 8, 2019 @ 11:44 am

    As an attendee of Seth's class as well, I had a discussion with two other students (Kaden Holladay and Shay Hucklebridge) afterward about this. While the three of us agreed that "Neither Barack smokes not Mitt smokes," was acceptable in our grammars, there were some cases where inversion was required for us:

    1a. *Neither Mitt smokes nor he dances.
    1b. Neither does Mitt smoke, nor does he dance.

    2a. *Neither he knows nor he cares.
    2b. Neither does he know, nor does he care.

    3a. %Neither John is coming nor Bill is coming. (I accept this; the others did not.)
    3b. Neither is John coming nor is Bill coming.

    4a. *Neither there is a beer in the fridge, nor there is wine in the cabinet.
    4b. Neither is there a beer in the fridge, nor is there wine in the cabinet.

    In addition, the two pronouns example depends on them being coreferential, at least for me; if they're not, I don't have to do inversion. This is easiest if you imagine you're pointing at two different people on each "he" and stressing them.

    5a. *Neither he1 knows nor he1 cares.
    5b. Neither does he1 know nor does he1 care.

    6a. Neither HE1 knows nor HE2 cares.
    6b. Neither does HE1 know nor does HE2 care.

    Also, while I can marginally accept inversion in the base case of "Neither S nor S", it's completely out in the following:

    7a. If neither Barack smokes nor Mitt smokes, then the (2012) candidates are non-smokers.
    7b. *If neither does Barack smokes nor does Mitt smoke, then the (2012) candidates are non-smokers.
    7c. ?Neither does Barack smoke nor does Mitt smoke.

  22. Michael Wilson said,

    November 8, 2019 @ 11:45 am

    Er, obviously that first sentence should read "Neither Barack smokes *nor* Mitt smokes."

  23. Vulcan With a Mullet said,

    November 8, 2019 @ 12:37 pm

    It doesn't bother me, but it does sound a little redundant to me. In other words, it doesn't come off as "wrong" at all to me but maybe a slight bit too "wordy". (50 year old American male)

  24. Andrew McCarthy said,

    November 8, 2019 @ 1:17 pm

    I think "neither… nor" requires a certain relatedness between its two objects, but this can (as with the example sentence) rub up against English's dislike of repetition. "Neither will he come, nor will he go" sounds grammatical to me, as does "Neither Mitt smokes, nor does Barack." But repeating the same verb in both clauses sounds clunky and un-fluent.

  25. Jonathon Owen said,

    November 8, 2019 @ 2:40 pm

    I find both "Neither Mitt smokes nor Barack smokes" and "Neither does Mitt smoke nor does Barack smoke" ungrammatical, or at the very least so stylistically infelicitous that they might as well be ungrammatical. And I'm in the category of Americans who are at least thirty years younger than Dr. Partee.

  26. DaveK said,

    November 8, 2019 @ 5:35 pm

    On the other hand "Either Mitt smokes or Barack smokes" is acceptable English, if a little wordy.
    Could this have something to do with the "either/or" construction dividing neatly into a choice of two possibilities, while "neither/nor" is a negative statement about both subjects, putting them into the same bucket, so the second verb feels redundant?

  27. JPL said,

    November 8, 2019 @ 7:37 pm

    "Neither does Barack smoke cigars, nor does Mitt drive a Rambler."

    This would apparently be considered ungrammatical by Pullum and Huddleston, but I agree with Barbara that it seems marginally OK. However, the sentence without the subj-aux inversion "*Neither Barack smokes cigars nor Mitt drives a Rambler" I would regard as ungrammatical. Isn't the subj-aux inversion required because 'neither-nor' involves the expression of negation? (E.g., "Seldom does he ever express regret".) Does this mean that the younger set has abandoned the rule of subj-aux inversion when negation is expressed initially in the clause structure?

    For the Montagovians, I want to suggest that the expression of mutually exclusive alternatives ('either-or') has a special logical status that the expression of two elements with the same polarity does not have.

  28. John Shutt said,

    November 8, 2019 @ 9:20 pm

    The second "does" sounds wrong to me.

    "Neither does Barack smoke cigars, nor Mitt drive a Rambler."

  29. Barbara Partee said,

    November 8, 2019 @ 10:45 pm

    Two notes — First, I certainly agree with the early commenters that in the original example it would be far more natural to apply the 'neither-nor' just to the subjects, and say 'Neither Mitt nor Barack smokes'. Whether that greater naturalness is enough to make the "Neither S nor S" construction ungrammatical, I'm not sure. I doubt it: With "either-or", application to just the subject is also preferable when it's possible, but applying it to full S's doesn't seem ungrammatical at all. "Either Mitt or Barack did it" is better, but "Either Mitt did it or Barack did it" seems perfectly grammatical, just unnecessarily wordy. And with "Both-and", application to full S's is much more clearly and uncontoversially ungrammatical — it's definitely not just a matter of style or competition between forms. "Both Mitt and Barack smoke" is fine, but *"Both Mitt smokes and Barack smokes" – that's totally out, right?

    Second note. For me, "Nor" absolutely requires inversion when it starts its own full sentence, as in the two-sentence sequence "That policy didn't satisfy the conservatives. Nor did it get any support from the liberals." My intuitions are much weaker about whether the initial "neither" requires inversion in the marginally-for-me acceptable "Neither S nor S" construction, and that may relate to the marginality of the construction.

    And Michael Wilson reported above about the further complexities of the judgments he and his classmates had — I'm wondering whether they and other younger speakers share my judgment that a full Nor-sentence always requires inversion. (As other examples Michael reported show, that inversion is just a root phenomenon. I guess the fronting of negative adverbials that trigger inversion is also a root phenomenon. Some of the variability in the neither-nor data may relate to those words being similar to negative adverbs but not actually adverbs.)

  30. David P said,

    November 8, 2019 @ 11:26 pm

    My understanding is that Barack smoked Mitt.

  31. Ellen K. said,

    November 9, 2019 @ 10:42 am

    Reading through Michael Wilson's many examples, what I notice is all the examples, a's and b's alike, are things I wouldn't say.

    And perhaps not what others would say, as distinct from what others might write if writing in a certain style. Because when I get down to 6a and 6b, both sound wrong simple because the two uses of "he" for different people only works in speech, and further, in a speech context where one might point at people. Which makes for a register mismatch. Change HE1 and HE2 to HE and SHE and they work.

  32. Rose Eneri said,

    November 9, 2019 @ 11:44 am

    David P, thanks for the laugh in this lengthy post.

  33. Andrew Usher said,

    November 9, 2019 @ 5:09 pm

    It's a thread, not a post. At least you didn't call it a blog. A thread is composed of posts.

    As for the question, I am quite sure, about as sure as I am of any grammar question, that CGEL is right and neither/nor can never join full sentences, not in any of the examples we've seen here in this thread. They must be rephrased if they can't be coordinated into one structure:

    – Neither Barack nor Mitt smokes

    but

    * Neither Barack smokes, nor Mitt drinks
    * … nor does Mitt drink

    instead it must be rephrased e.g.

    – Barack doesn't smoke, nor does Mitt drink

    and even though 'nor' by itself requires inversion, 'neither … nor' doesn't, as we have

    * Neither does Barack nor Mitt smoke
    – Neither does Barack or Mitt smoke

    (Shouldn't there be a real opposite of the asterisk, indicate that a sentence is acceptable?)

    Though these rules don't seem to have any underlying meaning, I have no doubt about their reality.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  34. David Marjanović said,

    November 9, 2019 @ 6:53 pm

    What does "root phenomenon" mean?

    It's a thread, not a post. At least you didn't call it a blog. A thread is composed of posts.

    On a forum (bulletin board) or a mailing list, a thread is composed of posts. On a blog, a thread is composed of one post and any number of comments.

  35. Barbara Partee said,

    November 9, 2019 @ 9:00 pm

    @David Marjanović — A "root phenomenon" is something that happens in main clauses only, not in embedded clauses. So for instance, German has a "verb second" rule, in main clauses only — in all embedded clauses, the tensed verb comes at the end. So that's a root phenomenon. In English, doing subject-aux inversion is a root phenomenon both in yes-no questions and with fronted 'negative adverbs', though it does occur in if-clauses in a certain style (slightly archaic, I think), as in "Had he noticed it earlier, he would have changed it", where the inversion is not in the main clause but in the subordinate conditional clause. [Root phenomena do occur in embedded clauses that are instances of direct quotation– that doesn't count as a counterexample.]
    So that would explain the difference in Michael's examples between the marginally good (for him) 7c and the impossible 7b, where inversion occurs in an embedded clause.

  36. JPL said,

    November 10, 2019 @ 4:40 am

    BTW, Michael's 7a should be: "If neither Biden smokes nor Mitt smokes, then the 2020 candidates will at least be non-smokers."

    While the "Had he noticed it" in the example is a subordinate conditional clause, what seems to make the difference is that an element expressing negation is occurring sentence- initially. In "Had he noticed it earlier, he would have …." (vs. "He had noticed it earlier …."), as with "Should you choose to proceed, …." (vs. "You should choose to proceed ….") and "Were he to appear in court …." ) vs. "He is to appear in court ….") the past tense is indicating contrafactivity.

  37. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    November 10, 2019 @ 7:34 am

    @Andrew Usher

    "(Shouldn't there be a real opposite of the asterisk, indicate that a sentence is acceptable?)"

    How about ✓ (U+2713)?

  38. Andrew Usher said,

    November 10, 2019 @ 1:24 pm

    I see that symbol only as a box reading '2713' – the mysteries of Unicode – but I gather it's supposed to be a check mark. Would it be OK in text to use a + sign for the same, which is on my keyboard and I can see? (while the – that I used should be neutral).

    David Marjanovic:
    I guess you're trying to be smart, but a blog comment certainly is a type of post (something 'posted' to the public). It would have been both pedantic and misleading to introduce a new term there. The standard vocabulary of the Internet has been around longer than blogs!

    JPL: No, I don't think 'Mitt' will be the candidate in 2020, if that's what your 'correction' was getting at. If not I don't understand what it was; while it's true 7a had a seeming tense error (I think he was imagining it said in 2012, which would make it right), introducing 'at least' is not necessary to fix it.

  39. GH said,

    November 11, 2019 @ 2:16 am

    @Andrew Usher:

    For what it's worth, my usage and intuition agrees with David's. In contexts where there's a clear distinction between them, the terms "post" and "comment" have different meanings. That applies to blogs, to platforms like Facebook, and even in cases where the top-level content is not usually called a post, such as news websites with comment sections on articles, or platforms that insist on their own term (Instagram "stories"), Starbucks-style. In these contexts, calling a comment a "post" is not correct.

    To say that the term "post" must properly apply to anything posted on the Internet strikes me as an etymological fallacy. The distinction is neither pedantic nor unnecessary: it has arisen precisely because people often need to distinguish between the two.

    As for the topic of the post (QED), I am surprised that people find almost any of these alternatives grammatical. I think I would only be willing to accept "Neither Mitt (n)or Barack smokes"; "Neither does Mitt smoke, nor does Barack"; or "Neither does Mitt smoke, nor Barack drink"—and the latter two are awkward enough that I would recommend a rewrite.

  40. BZ said,

    November 11, 2019 @ 4:50 pm

    Shouldn't it be "Neither Mitt nor Barack smoke"? No "s" at the end?

  41. Andrew Usher said,

    November 11, 2019 @ 8:36 pm

    GH:
    At least you agree on the grammar part; all those sentences sound wrong.

    As for 'post', I wasn't saying that there should be no distinction between the post proper and its comments, or that such a distinction isn't useful. I only asserted that using the word 'post' for the latter is not wrong, and not only because of etymology, but my actual usage. Similarly 'reply' would not be wrong either, and if I remember right there are still some websites that use the term 'replies' instead of 'comments'. I simply chose not to mention this, as stated.

    BZ:
    No, though it might seem so. The positive equivalent is 'Mitt or Barack smokes', and the negative should follow.

  42. Ray said,

    November 11, 2019 @ 11:48 pm

    "Neither Mitt smokes nor Barack smokes" sounds like some kind of legalese or courtroom argument, because Barack smoked (and admitted he "fell off the wagon" sometimes while president, and it's open to question whether he still smokes) and Mitt "tried it once" in high school (and it's open to question whether his "not smoking" is the same as Barack's "not smoking").

  43. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 12, 2019 @ 12:15 am

    None of them sound like English to me except "Neither Mitt nor Barack smokes." I can't imagine a native speaker saying any of them. (Sometimes things happen that I can't imagine.)

    *Neither Mitt smokes nor Barack smokes

    *Neither does Mitt smoke nor does Barack smoke.

    *Neither did he oversleep nor was his bus late.

    *Neither does Mitt smoke nor does Barack drink.

    *Neither does Barack smoke nor Mitt drink.

    Strangely enough, I can imagine Michael Wilson's "If neither Barack smokes nor Mitt smokes, then the (2012) candidates are non-smokers." I hope I'd delete the first "smokes", though.

  44. Philip Taylor said,

    November 12, 2019 @ 7:48 am

    Of your list of unimaginables, Jerry, I can imagine one : "Neither did he oversleep nor was his bus late". I can see this being written as a part of the findings of a formal disciplinary hearing at which a habitual latecomer variously alleged that on the occasion in question his failure to report for duty at the appointed hour was (a) because his 'bus was late, and/or (b) because he overslept.

  45. Adam Werle said,

    November 14, 2019 @ 7:38 am

    Barbara, my intuitions are the same as yours. Young people!

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