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Given the sentence "John told neither the boss nor the secretary.", which of the following has the same meaning?

  1. John did not tell both the boss and the secretary.
  2. John did not tell either the boss and the secretary.
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1  
All three mean the same. It's a style problem. Sentence 1 should be "John did not tell the boss or the secretary". Sentence 2 should be "John did not tell either the boss or the secretary". The version with neither...nor is best, IMHO, but my revision of S1 is also good. –  user21497 Jan 24 '13 at 14:40
    
2. Furthermore, (1.) is ambiguous and sounds illogical: it could mean John told one of them, but not both. (2.) either the boss or the secretary, not and. –  Kris Jan 24 '13 at 14:42
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Welcome to EL&U. As it stands this question is incomplete. Please edit to explain how this question comes up and to include the results of research efforts you have already made and why they were inadequate to answer the question. Thanks. –  MετάEd Jan 24 '13 at 15:12
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closed as not a real question by MετάEd, cornbread ninja 麵包忍者, Andrew Leach, Kristina Lopez, Robusto Jan 24 '13 at 22:09

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3 Answers

Neither.

The model sentence is clear

John told neither the boss nor the secretary.
[He did not tell either of them.]

The first option is conjuntive.

John did not tell the boss and the secretary.
[He may have told one or the other.]
[He may have told neither.]
[He did not tell both]

The second option is grammatically incorrect since either should not be paired with and.

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Technically, there is a small difference between 1 & 2

John did not tell either the boss or the secretary

is clearly what is intended (Or "John told neither the boss nor the secretary" which is equivalent.)

In this case:

  1. John did not tell the boss -and-
  2. John did not tell the secretary

John did not tell both the boss and the secretary

will most likely be heard as intended - if un-idiomatically - and as above

John did not tell (both the boss and the secretary)

Technically, however, one could tell the boss, tell the secretary, but not the two of them together. Like a 4-year old they could say "you didn't say I could tell each one individually!"

As such, only a grammatical laywer would ever come up with that intrepretation, but technically it is possible.

That said, #2 is by far the preferred way of saying it.

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Gotta disagree with your approval of #2; you NEVER say "either ... and". –  Hellion Jan 24 '13 at 15:11
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Either goes with or, and not and, so that makes 2 ungrammatical.

John did not tell both the boss and the secretary means that John said nothing to the boss and nothing to the secretary, just as John told neither the boss nor the secretary does. However, the first of those two would be unlikely to occur on its own. It would normally be part of a longer sentence such as John did not tell both the boss and the secretary at the same time, and, even there, both would probably come before at the same time, rather than before the boss and the secretary.

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I find it difficult to make 1 (“John did not tell both the boss and secretary”) mean that he told neither of them. The most immediate understanding (and unless I really strain myself, the only understand) I get is that he told one, but not the other. “Did John tell both of them?” — “No, he did not tell both the boss and the secretary—he told only the secretary”. Although, if slightly recast, both interpretations become equally likely to me: “He ended up not telling both the boss and the secretary” could easily mean either (or both!). –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 19 '13 at 5:26
    
It's hard to give a sensible answer to questions like this without the full context. –  Barrie England Aug 19 '13 at 5:57
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