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I am struggling to find the correct grammar for a fairly simple sentence.

"I don't like potatoes or ice-cream".

This appears to be incorrect because it is a contraction of the two clauses "I don't like potatoes or I don't like ice-cream", which has a different (if any) meaning. You can see why it's wrong when you use a different verb such as:

"I hate potatoes or ice-cream".

To use "I don't like potatoes and ice-cream" would be correct but ambiguous as it appears to imply they have to be served together to elicit dislike.

An Oxford comma would be an elegant method of reducing this ambiguity ("I don't like potatoes, and ice-cream") but I'm sure that's incorrect as well.

I expect there's a very formal sentence construction involving neither/nor but nobody would ever say that.

So what is the correct construction here?

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34  
English isn't mathematics or logic. Most people understand perfectly well that the person saying I don't like ice cream or potatoes is saying they like neither, not solely one or the other. If you were challenged on your construction, it would either be for fun or because you were speaking with a pedant. –  medica Aug 12 at 10:09
6  
Just for the record, the everyday way to say it in spoken speech would be "I hate potatoes and ice-cream". You are wrong that this implies "together". From the context, everyone would take the correct disambiguation. (Ambiguity is utterly commonplace in English; no need to worry here particularly.) –  Joe Blow Aug 12 at 10:10
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@JoeBlow you seem to be missing a little detail about negation and the use of and and or. The "served together" was about I don't like A and B, and I for one could surely interpret that as you not liking the combination. _Don't like does not behave the same as hate, even if their meaning may be similar. –  oerkelens Aug 12 at 10:26
6  
@oerkelens - Good point. I imagine that question is answered in Vincent van Gogh's officially unsanctioned and never-seen painting, The ice-cream-and-potato-haters. –  Erik Kowal Aug 12 at 10:49
6  
@rickyzenon As a native British English speaker, I disagree that British people wouldn't say "hot dogs with ketchup": it seems a perfectly common and natural construction to me. Indeed, in some cases, it seems far more natural than using "and": if somebody offered me "coffee and milk", I'd wonder if they meant a cup of coffee and a glass of milk; if they offered me "coffee with milk", I wouldn't even think of the alternative parsing. –  David Richerby Aug 12 at 14:30

10 Answers 10

You could try

"I like neither potatoes nor ice cream"

though it sounds somewhat old-fashioned.

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13  
This is exactly correct. –  Alastair Campbell Aug 12 at 12:11
12  
I wouldn't say this, but I write using this construction all the time. –  Bobson Aug 12 at 19:30
6  
I must be more of a fuddy-duddy than I thought. It sounds perfectly normal to me, particularly in written English. –  Erik Kowal Aug 12 at 20:30
4  
You certainly could, but this implies by omission that the original construction is wrong, which is worth a downvote. –  SevenSidedDie Aug 12 at 22:14
5  
The implication that the original is in any way wrong, or worse than this alternative is strange, and wrong. The suggestion to formulate it different is actually unnecessary, if if the alternative formulation is (also) correct. –  oerkelens Aug 13 at 11:02

How about simply using "both":

I hate both potatoes and ice-cream.

While this serves to prove that you hate potatoes and ice-cream too, it doesn't have the subtle implication that can sometimes arise out of using "and" like you pointed out:

To use "I don't like potatoes and ice-cream" would be correct but ambiguous as it appears to imply they have to be served together to illicit dislike.

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"hate" is much stronger than "don't like" –  TylerH Aug 13 at 13:40
    
Dislike would probably work better. I dislike both Potatoes and Ice-Cream. –  aslum Aug 13 at 15:20
    
Agreed. But hate and don't like are both words used by the OP. I merely wish to provide an alternative to the already well-known "neither/nor" or "and" constructs. "Both" can used by both "hate" and "dislike". –  Manish Aug 13 at 15:35
3  
If I were really pedantic, I'd argue you'd be introducing a new ambiguity by using both. Now it sounds like there could be two potatoes, and you hate both. –  Mr Lister Aug 13 at 19:27
    
So, you mean to say you would hate two potatoes given to you, and you would not hate some other potato not given to you? Forgive me, but the other way(where both refers to potatoes and ice-cream) sounds natural to me). –  Manish Aug 14 at 4:53

The presence of a negation makes all the difference!

The sentence is interpreted as:

I don't (like (potatoes or ice-cream)). -> I don't (like potatoes or like ice-cream).

This logic can be represented with and instead of or, if we use the negation twice:

I don't like potatoes and I don't like ice-cream.

Without a negation, this would go like:

I (like (potatoes or ice-cream)). -> I (like potatoes or like ice-cream).

Which may be valid, but puzzling. Your version with hate doesn't change that.

This looks like (a variation on) negative raising.

In short, your original sentence seems to convey exactly the meaning you intended.

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Right. The key insight is: the version with hate changes nothing. –  Joe Blow Aug 12 at 10:08
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I had a feeling that the original sentence may actually be correct and that it was something to do with the "don't". This answer absolutely pinpoints the reasons why. Many thanks! –  rickyzenon Aug 12 at 10:09
29  
De Morgan's Law strikes again! –  Matt Gutting Aug 12 at 10:57
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+1, but I don't think this is negative raising. It's just De Morgan's Law, as @Matt Gutting says. –  Kyle Strand Aug 12 at 18:04

You have analysed your query sentence incorrectly. If you are determined to expand it, it becomes something like

I don't like either potatoes or ice cream.

There is actually nothing wrong with the original format of the sentence, which is both well-formed and idiomatic. Trying to expand it is over-thinking what is basically a very simple and straightforward structure.

You are right that

"I don't like potatoes, and ice cream"

is wrong (not to say grossly unidiomatic). However,

"I don't like potatoes, and I don't like ice cream"

is acceptable as a way of emphasizing your dislike of both these commodities.

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1  
Additional notes: (1) the Oxford comma is only used in lists with three or more items (because otherwise it looks like the "and" is intended as a coordinating conjunction). (2) Another way to emphasize the separateness of the two items would be to say "I like neither potatoes nor ice cream." –  Kyle Strand Aug 12 at 18:03
    
(3) "Dislike" would be a better choice for the alternative phrasing than "hate." "I dislike ice-cream and potatoes." (4) To use a non-negated verb (dislike or hate) and still make the separation between the two items, one could use "as well as": "I dislike potatoes as well as ice cream." –  Kyle Strand Aug 12 at 18:12
    
"nothing wrong with the original format" +1 –  Mazura Aug 13 at 6:34
    
This is close enough to what I was going to say that I won't leave a separate answer. The main difference in my answer would have been emphasizing that "not <verb>" cannot be replaced with a synonymous "<verb>." The negation of the verb changes the proper expansion. "I don't <verb> <object1> or <object2>" expands differently than "I <verb> <object1> or <object2>." The verb negation combined with "or" actually implies "and" as in your last example. "I hate ___ or ___" does not mean the same thing as "I don't like ___ or ___." –  trlkly Aug 13 at 7:18

The simple version:

-- I like neither potatoes nor ice cream.

The other simple version:

-- I don't like either potatoes or ice cream.

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4  
I would recommend "like neither" as opposed to "neither like." The latter isn't really parallel. –  Kyle Strand Aug 12 at 18:05

Yet another simple way of fixing the sentence:

I don't like potatoes or ice cream either.

Google Books has a number of results for "or with him either", sometimes with a coma before "or".

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1  
I would say this construction is more typical of conversation (in which tags are used more often because sentences can't always be completely planned out in advance) than formal writing. I'd actually strongly discourage it except in conversation. –  Kyle Strand Aug 12 at 18:07
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This could only be a reply that echoes a prior speaker's remark to the effect that they do not like potatoes or ice cream. It's not an utterance you would lead with. –  Erik Kowal Aug 12 at 20:28
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Well, the OP mentioned that he was willing to avoid formal construction. However, you can find this construction in print, e.g. in S. Mitchell's translation of the Iliad: "He never expected that Patroclus would try to storm the city without him, or with him either" –  Joce Aug 13 at 8:17
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The original sentence doesn't need fixing... –  oerkelens Aug 13 at 11:05
    
@Joce To my (figurative) ear that sounds very much like an attempt to emulate the spoken word, which is reasonable since the Iliad was originally passed down orally. (My personal taste would lean toward "without him, or even with him", but that's neither here nor there.) –  Kyle Strand Aug 14 at 21:29

Context is important. One likely scenario for this sentence is when receiving food at say a lunch. There are a number of foods to choose from and the speaker wants to inform the hosts which foods to leave out.

Other than that, it seems an unlikely choice of words. Few people dislike only potatoes and ice-cream out of all the different foods in the world. Thus I think it is best to believe that this statement is eliminating potatoes and ice-cream in a small set of foods to have. Personally, I think the sentence, "I don't like potatoes and I don't like ice-cream." Is easily verifiable as correct, and is a simple enough phrase to resort to.

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4  
That would mean you eat more potatoes and ice cream than any other kind of food (thus suggesting liking them, which is the opposite of the intended meaning). –  Eliah Kagan Aug 13 at 5:32
    
Note to future readers who are confused: this answer was massively edited following @Eliah Kagan's comment. –  Kyle Strand Aug 14 at 21:32

To build on @Binney's answer and make it less "old-fashioned", you can just as correctly say:

"I don't like potatoes nor ice cream."

The word "nor" is the negative conjunction for a series aggregation. Or, to you and me: it is the "negative" equivalent of using "or" in a list of things. You can illustrate its use more vividly by adding more items to your list:

"I don't like potatoes, pickles nor ice cream."

Of course, you could use "neither", as others have already stated:

"I like neither potatoes nor ice cream."

Which works great when you have only two items, but once you add another:

"I like neither potatoes, pickles, nor ice cream."

You see you probably need to add "nor" to every item for it to sound natural:

"I like neither potatoes, nor pickles, nor ice cream."

Hope that helps.

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While the construct might not make sense with the foods in the original question, saying e.g. "I don't like fish and chips" would not mean that I dislike fish, nor that I dislike chips, but rather that I find the combination disagreeable, while saying "I don't like fish or chips" would mean that I find fish disagreeable and also find chips disagreeable. Note that a somewhat related pattern appears when applying multiple adjectives to a noun. Saying "I like red and blue stripes" means I like stripes which contain both colors, while saying "I like red or blue stripes" means that I like stripes which are either red or blue [meaning that I like red stripes, and I like blue stripes], but does not imply that I would like stripes that were both red and blue.

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In addition to oerkelens' answer, you might also view your phrase more like this:

I don't like subject

In this case, the or indicates that whichever of potatoes or ice cream is substituted, your statement is true.

It is certainly not incorrect English.

To take it a bit further, the word or in this is actually a list terminalizer. It would not be unusual to list more items with this structure:

I don't like apples, strawberries, or peaches.

The or, as above, indicates that the values do not combine, whereas an and would convey that they do, but either can be used to terminate such a list.

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I have attempted to give an answer which conveys as much information as possible, and have expanded it. Most other answers here rely on there being exactly two items, but this construct may be used with more, whereas either and neither imply only two items. I seem to have received a downvote for this. –  Magus Aug 14 at 14:45

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