English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

Is this phrase wrong? Shouldn't it be,

they know naught of what they speak?

share|improve this question

Despite the word order being unusual by today's standard, the phrase is grammatically correct. To convert it to a more modern variant, move the not ahead of the verb (which requires adding do as well) and if you like, move the preposition to the end:

They don't know what they speak of

I'll note the usage of not after the verb is not uncommon in old phrases. E.g.:

Judge not, lest ye be judged

share|improve this answer
they know not what they do ... – mplungjan Mar 29 '11 at 6:25
The closest modern variant I hear regularly is: "They don't know what they're talking about." – MrHen Mar 29 '11 at 20:21

I have to disagree with Dusty's previous explanation.

The original phrase, “they know not of what they speak,” is correct, but the explanation is different. Correctly rephrased, it means:

They do not know anything about (the thing) they are talking about.

Dusty's rephrase says, they don't know what they speak of and this, naturally, implies something very different. It may mean, for example, that they are drunk and have no idea whatsoever that they are even talking :)

In the original phrase, the speaker (described in the phrase), is fully confident and aware of what they are speaing.

share|improve this answer
I'd suggest that "they don't know what they speak of" does mean the same as "They do not know anything about (the thing) they are talking about." Describing the drunk person, I'd say, "They don't know that they are speaking", which is clearly different. – Steve Melnikoff Mar 29 '11 at 11:02
I think I see the distinction you are making but would probably word it as, "Dusty's rephrasing implies that they don't know what subject they are talking about." As in, they are unable to identify what they speak of. – MrHen Mar 29 '11 at 20:21

"Naught" is possible there, but it is not necessary to emend it: as others have said "they know not" is perfectly good English up to a couple of hundred years ago, and still not quite dead.

(Historically, "not" actually does come from "naught". The sequence (in Old English, but using modern forms of words) goes

"They ne know" -> "they ne know naught" -> "they ne know not" -> "they know not"

and then in Modern English

"They do not know"

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jespersen%27s_Cycle)

share|improve this answer
Isn't "naught" the same thing as "nothing" and not "not?" – language hacker Apr 15 '11 at 21:35
In modern English "Naught", "nothing" and "not" are three different words. "naught" and "nothing" have different origins, but the same meaning. "Not", though it has a different meaning, is apparently derived from "naught", via Jespersen's cycle (French "pas" originally meant "pace" but has come to mean "not" by the same mechanism). – Colin Fine Apr 18 '11 at 12:37

I think that 'know not' means 'do not know' and 'naught' means 'nothing'. So it would be like saying 'They do not know / they know nothing.'

share|improve this answer

I think the distinction here is very different when using not and naught. Not is an adverb and a negation of a word or group of words. Where as naught is a noun meaning a complete failure, Example:"All my efforts led to naught" Or as the noun meaning a quantity of no importance, Example: "It was all for naught"

So you can say as an example "My future I know not, perhaps it will be for naught." Which means, "I don't know my future, perhaps it will amount to nothing."

share|improve this answer

A stronger term might be "they know nothing of what they speak" which has been my favorite when describing various talking heads and news readers. cheers :D

share|improve this answer
Can you provide a source for this claim? – virmaior Feb 16 '14 at 17:46

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.