acanuck's picture

    Now for something completely different: But nor ...

    OK, there's this nagging problem I have. Sort of an obsession. I push it to the back of my mind, where it stays quiescent for months, causing me no grief. Then it re-emerges, always re-emerges. Help me, dagblog community. HELP ME!

    I blame Genghis for this latest relapse. In a comment to a post by Orlando (below), he wrote:

    "A lying Mrs. Tebow would have no significance on the abortion debate. But nor would an honest Mrs. Tebow."

    This is wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong! Not Mrs. Tebow. I mean the combination of the words "but" and "nor." Substitute the word "neither," and it rolls off the tongue and/or the printed page. But "but nor" definitely does not; it jars my virtual ear. Where does this barbarism come from? Do they teach it in American schools?

    I have never heard this phrase uttered in real life, or seen it submitted by a Canadian writer during more than three decades as a copy editor. I have only encountered it on the internet, in the texts of such otherwise reputable bloggers as Ezra Klein, Ed Kilgore, Tony Karon and -- as I noted above -- Genghis. Clearly some people think "but nor" is not only acceptable, but grammatically prescribed. 

    Kilgore, for example, wrote on TPM: 

    A huge number of Republicans didn't endorse or campaign for Barry Goldwater in 1964, but nor did they endorse or campaign for Lyndon Johnson. 

    Clearly, there is some school of thought -- some authority, some grammarian, some respected author, perhaps some "language" columnist -- backing this construction.

    My half-century-old Fowler's backs me up at least partially when it condemns the very similar usage "and nor." Addition of the "and," it says, is "clumsy." There is no mention of "but nor," perhaps because that usage was unknown 50 years ago.

    At the very least, we have a pleonasm here, as in, "But he did not consider, however, that ..."
    I think that is the problem in the above quotation: the writer realizes, when he gets to a certain point in the sentence, that he did not signal clearly enough, early enough, the contrast that he intended to draw. He probably should have backtracked and written:

    Although a huge number of Republicans didn't endorse or campaign for Barry Goldwater in 1964, neither did they endorse or campaign for Lyndon Johnson.

    A British or Canadian writer might even drop the "although" altogether, and simply preface "neither" by a semicolon. If one adamantly insists on keeping the "but," it's clearly less offensive to use "neither" with it, rather than "nor."

    Help me out here, dagbloggers. And any grammarians who may be listening in. Either convince me there is some logical reason for "but nor" to exist, or join my campaign to stamp it out before it enters the actual spoken language.

    Thank you.


    Well at least I'm in good company. It seems that you are correct when it comes to American English, but British English allows "but nor." I'm not sure where that leaves Canadian English. Nor do I want to know.

    So it's a Briticism, not an Americanism. I was sure it was the other way around, since I've seen it mostly on American blogs. But your Cambridge citation is pretty definitive. Do you have any idea where you might have picked it up? At school in England, perhaps, or from a British-born professor? As I said, I've never heard it spoken in Canada.

    In passing, what do you call a pizza with everything on it? Just a few kilometres over the border in New York, I ordered an "all dressed" and got a very strange look. I had always assumed the phrase was universal, but apparently it is not.

    Though I have studied in England, I suspect that "but nor" is just creeping into American usage, hence Follett's complaints. I'm surprised that he didn't mention the Briticism.

    Silly Canadian. A pizza with everything is a pizza with everything, though you might say with "the works." Do you call a cheese pizza "naked?"

    We call that "a pizza royale with cheese." Or, in French-speaking parts of the country, "poutine."

    I thought that a poutine was cheese curds in gravy. You people are weird. (Though I confess that I do enjoy poutines.)

    And you... are a Butnor.


    I'm  not a grammarian by any means.  I didn't know the word 'pleonasm' until I read it in this entry.  (Thanks for the intro.)  I also (as is probably already apparent from my comments here) don't write in a very reader friendly, clear, and straightforward manner.

    Still, for what it's worth my guess is that 'but nor' may result from a writer feeling hesitant about choosing between 'neither' and 'nor' given that they are so frequently paired with one another. I don't know if there's a formal guideline or not, but I feel that 'nor' should be used for unsurprising pairings, while 'but neither' should be reserved for ones which are unexpected. (Combining 'but' with 'nor' just seems awkward and jarring to my ears.)


    'X didn't do Y, nor did Z.' - if one would be unsurprised to learn that both X and Z would take the same action on Y.

    'X didn't do Y, but neither did Z.' - if the action of Z might run counter to one's expectations.

    'Neither X nor Z did Y.' - seems acceptable in either case.  Of course if the writer wants to negate the verb, then this is not an option, and that may lead one to less familiar territory where 'but nor' can rear its ugly head.


    Speaking for myself, I use "but nor" to annoy acanuck.

    For the record, your comments have been clear and articulate--a welcome change from the usual enraged squealing that we get from drive-by critics.

    Thank you.  I think I'll attribute a distaste for acrimony to homespun Midwestern values.  That way we can bask in the warm glow of self congratulation and regional chauvinism.  (Every day is like an episode of 'Ed'.  Yes, indeedy!  Before his success as a computer, the Mac learned about life and love in one of our many quirky  bowling alleys.)

    I'm still trying to suss out what exactly this place is.  (There's a high sarcasm to earnestness ratio.)  If I start a reader blog, will my 'drive-by' status change?  I've seen them at other sites, but never tried one out.

    Actually, all you have to do is hang around a while for your 'drive-by' status to change, if it hasn't already. And, yes, we do employ sarcasm quite a bit here. Sometimes, it's hard to be 100% certain whether something is true or merely satire.

    Go for it. Make sure to ping me after because reader blogs need to be manually approved due to spamming. (If your views on abortion reflect a conservative political perspective, you may incite some spirited responses because this is a pretty liberal place, but we appreciate intelligent opposition, so don't let that stop you. Neither/nor is it necessary to blog about politics, as acanuck has just demonstrated.)

    PS I'm still trying to suss out what this place is too.

    And I lie about what Canadians call "cheese pizza" to annoy Genghis. So everybody wins.

    Looking at your first two examples above, Dave, gives me an idea for why "but nor" is problematic. In the first, you could indeed substitute "neither" for "nor" without changing the meaning. But grammatically, you would have to domething else, too -- change the comma to a semicolon.

    Why? Because, even though my dictionary tells me both are conjunctions, "neither" is less of a conjunction than "nor" is. "X didn't do Y, neither did Z" is grammatically wrong because there's a missing connector -- the sentence requires either a "but," an "and," or a semicolon. "Nor," on the other hand, is a full-fledged conjunction; it basically means "and also not," whereas "neither" to my mind merely means "also not." Which is why prefacing "nor" with yet another conjunction is redundant, and doing so to "neither" is not.

    There. Problem solved, I think. The fact "but nor" has some currency in Britain makes its use by North Americans more tolerable, even though I personally find it inelegant. But that's just me; I also detest the use of "and" in sentences like "She did X, and then she did Y," or "X happened, and so Y happened." The fewer conjunctions the better, I say. God invented semicolons and dashes for a reason.

    Problem solved, I think.

    Or so it would seem, and yet, this sentence contains two conjunctions that may be paired correctly with other conjunctions. Some might argue that there is no problem, save in the twisted mind of a certain perfidious poutine perjurer.

    I never claimed the doubling up of conjunctions is necessarily agrammatical. Your sentence works perfectly well -- yet, I can't help thinking a dash would have sufficed.

    "even though my dictionary tells me both are conjunctions, "neither" is less of a conjunction than "nor" is."

    That proves it.  I'm out of my depth.  I didn't know that there were degrees of being a conjunction, let alone how to find out what they are.  (Is it true that if the degree of being a conjunction rises well above 98.6F, then you have conjuctivitis?)

    That "nor" means "and also not," whereas "neither" means "also not" is my intuition as well.  Of course, I wouldn't have been able to articulate it before you explained it like that.

    Incidentally, you shouldn't get your hopes up about semicolons.  We American's tend to fear them.  Many of our public schools* don't bother teaching us about the semicolons.  There's a general feeling that it's unnecessary because no one needs to learn about them because it's something that most people "will never use in real life."  A lot of public schools take the same view of trigonometry and evolution.

    I think that on a subconscious level we may view them as foreign and untrustworthy- like an umlaut that got run over by a truck .

    *: Does "public school" mean in Canada what it means here, or do you use it the (weird) way the British do?

    We American's tend to fear them.  Many of our public school's* don't bother teaching us about the semicolons.

    Evidently, they also teach many of us to use apostrophes for plurals. :D (Sorry, couldn't resist in a blog about grammar. It's very dangerous for me to throw such stones considering the glass house I find around me.)

    I think that on a subconscious level we may view them as foreign and untrustworthy- like an umlaut that got run over by a truck .

    That's just pure awesomeness. Love it!

    The beauty of English lies in its flexibility, Dave. Nouns evolve into verbs. Or into adjectives. Adverbs evolve into conjunctions, bringing with them some of their previous meaning. So I'd argue that in the sentence "She did X, then she did Y" the word then is a conjunction, not just an adverb meaning subsequently. You could also write "She did X; next, she did Y," but you'd need a semicolon because "next" hasn't yet taken on that grammatical role.

    That's what I was getting at by invoking degrees of conjunction-ness (conjunctivity?). We're watching a language in constant evolution and growth, and sometimes a word is part tadpole, part frog.

    You're right about semicolons being underused. I suspect schools don't teach about them because most teachers don't know when and how to use them. Same goes for the much-maligned dash, which can be a subtle variant for the comma, semicolon, colon, ellipsis and parenthesis. Maybe schools avoid teaching it out of fear that it's the only punctuation students would ever use.

    Public schools here are government-funded; private schools are often government-subsidized. That includes universities, so tuition fees are amazingly affordable. Which is why we're better educated, and vote for things like universal single-payer health care.

    Which is why we're better educated, and vote for things like universal single-payer health care.

    Does that also explain why you've had a whopping 18 Nobel Prize winners while we've only had 320?

    The prize system is structurally biased. For instance, have you ever wondered why there is no Nobel Prize for curling?

    Have you switched to the Senate's system of counting for everything or are you limiting it to Nobel Prizes only?

    ¿Que? Those were the numbers from the Wikipedia article on Nobel Prizes. Of course, combined with acanauck's observation, one conclusion might be that, like wealth, 90% of our nation's brains are owned by 10% of its population. Zombie Reagan calls for brain redistribution!

    The beauty of English lies in its flexibility

    Hmmm.  I'd say that the flexibility of the English language is what gives it (IMHO) its superior ability to accurately represent even the most complex and subtle thoughts.  I'm not sure if I'd give it much more than average marks for beauty.  French is probably more beautiful.

    [I knew what you meant- just giving you a hard time.]


    Public schools here are government-funded; private schools are often government-subsidized. That includes universities, so tuition fees are amazingly affordable.

    I understood that your funding of education and health care are more like what they have in the UK (ie, more just, fair, socially responsible) than what we have.  I was just curious if you used the same (crazy) terminology.  Here a public school is one that is funded publicly, while a private school is funded privately.  There public schools are funded privately.

    Am I the only one who thinks the beauty of the French language is vastly overrated? Maybe it has something to do with me being born in Germany…

    I'm guessing it's the German thing.  French reminds me of housecats.  German reminds me of a steam engine.

    It's axiomatic to the French that their language is the most beautiful in the world. But yeah, Nebbie, I've heard some really grating French spoken. Still, the language is more fluid and internally consistent than English, giving a good speaker, writer or singer a bit of a head start in creating beauty.

    English, with its mostly French vocabulary grafted onto a Germanic base, is not as smooth (and its spelling is nightmarish). But turning its mongrel nature into a virtue, English has absorbed words, phrases and concepts from everywhere the Royal Navy ever stopped for R&R. No language matches it for richness of vocabulary (except Inuktitut when it comes to varieties of snow).

    So English and French have different kinds of beauty: French is a painting by Monet; English is a well-made power tool. French guards its consistency with an Académie Française. English is essentially democratic, even anarchic. You want to coin a word -- truthiness, google, bling -- knock yourself out. If it survives in the linguistic marketplace, it's English.

    I love my language, the best communication tool man has yet invented -- although I do regret that it's helping drive so many other lovely ones out of existence.

    Absolutely!  That's what I had in mind with flexibility vs. beauty & English vs. .

    French.  One may perform it's function with elegance, but if you have to use the same tool ever day...

    Yay for grammar!! Yesterday, I learned what an anaphoric reference is--a half-hour before I had to teach it! (See what I did there?)

    Aha, you actually made an anaphoric reference (I had to google it myself). And you tossed in a dash to boot. You get two gold stars. I didn't realize what you were doing over there was teaching English. Cool.

    I think you're misunderstanding the 'but nor' construction (in at least some of its uses). It is not synonymous with "nor". It is synonymous with "Nor, however, ..... ", which has some clearly acceptable uses. Consider:


    You can't buy fish at any supermarket in this city. Nor, however, does anyone want to.

    You can't buy fish at any supermarket in this city. But nor does anyone want to.


    Those are distinct in meaning from:

    You can't buy fish at any supermarket in this city. Nor does anyone want to.




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