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I am never quite sure whether to use nevertheless or nonetheless; they seem almost synonymous to me, but I think I might be missing a subtle distinction. Is there a difference, and if so, how do I determine which is right in different circumstances?

I am specifically thinking of sentences like this:

  • I am busy Saturday, nevertheless I will come to your party anyway.
  • I am busy Saturday, nonetheless I will come to your party anyway.

There is a question here that deals with a specific idiomatic usage, but I was thinking of the general type of usage, as given in the party example above.

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I always thought of "Nevertheless" as being a way of saying that not only is whatever-it-is not lessened now, but that it will at no point ever be lessened, no matter what might come to pass. How far am I off my rocker? –  user867 Jul 31 '13 at 4:16

7 Answers 7

up vote 9 down vote accepted

The regular MW dictionary entry for nonetheless actually just says "nevertheless," and I'm not personally familiar with a situation when you could justifiably use one but not the other.

According to merriam-webster.com's Learner's Dictionary, they have the same definition as well:

in spite of what has just been said

…although nonetheless is marked as somewhat formal, while nevertheless is not.

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Nonetheless is used when talking about an amount of something.

He really botched it tonight. I love him nonetheless.

Here we are saying that the amount I love him has not been diminished from the level I loved him prior to his having botched it.

Nevertheless should be used when talking about doing something despite the facts.

It could be dangerous. Nevertheless, I've got to try.

Here we are saying that I will try despite the fact that it could be dangerous.

Note though that quite often interchanging the words results in a sentence with a different nuance of meaning but the same overall outcome.

Switching to nevertheless in my first example changes the meaning from I don't love him any less to I love him despite the facts - very similar but not quite the same.

And this is why interchanging them works so often. Because usually when saying that the amount that I do something has not diminished in any way it is because something has occurred that had the possibility of diminishing it and in not diminishing the amount I have essentially done that despite the facts.

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3  
I don't find the slightest hint of the distinction you are making, in my understanding of the sentences. Perhaps it's a dialect thing. –  Colin Fine Jun 22 '12 at 10:04
    
I kind of see where you are coming from here. You are proposing that "I love him nonetheless" means essentially "The amount less that I love him is none." (Now there is an ugly sentence.) I'm not convinced, though. Can you expand a little? –  Fraser Orr Jun 22 '12 at 14:03
    
@ColinFine: Here is an example where I think the meaning is clear: "Julius II loved him nonetheless for it..." means Julius didn't love him any less because of it. –  Jim Jun 22 '12 at 15:13
3  
@Jim. Ah. I see the problem. That is not the word nonetheless: it is the phrase none the less. To see the difference, consider Julius did not love him any the less. There is no word anytheless. –  Colin Fine Jun 25 '12 at 23:34
3  
To put Jim's point slightly differently, nonetheless means 'not the slightest bit less' while nevertheless means 'despite that'. –  H Stephen Straight Feb 11 at 21:06

Semantically, as others have said, there is no real difference between nonetheless and nevertheless.

There is a difference (or at least a tendency towards a difference) in syntax, though: their locations tend to differ when used as phrasal adverbs.

Nevertheless is usually placed before the clause it comments on, while nonetheless tends to feel slightly more awkward in this position (though by no means impossible).

I will defer to your judgment. Nevertheless, I still think we ought to tell her.
I will defer to your judgment. *Nonetheless, I still think we ought to tell her.

Conversely, nonetheless when used as a phrasal adverb is most commonly placed after the clause it refers to, where nevertheless can feel downright stilted:

I will defer to your judgment, but I still think we ought to tell her nonetheless.
I will defer to your judgment, but I still think we ought to tell her *nevertheless.

Neither of these two is more than a somewhat vague tendency, however. Exceptions are plenty and quite common; these tendencies make for a good rule of thumb, though.

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The difference is a subtle one, and the two can frequently (typically?) be used interchangeably. But what difference there is between these two compound words is rooted in the single components that make them different: never, and none.

"Never" is concerned with time, and so is more directly applicable in connection with an event or something that can happen: "It's cold today, but I am going out nevertheless." There's been no change in the likelihood of a given thing happening.

"None" is concerned with quantity, and so is more directly applicable in connection with a measurable quality, attribute, condition, degree, etc: "It's not as cold today, but it is cold nonetheless." There's been a change, but the change is being discounted, and so the given situation or condition remains the same.

Even in those examples, the two can be reasonably swapped. But, in imagining a context where those two sentences might be used, there's a shift in tone or emphasis related to an intention to go out; or an assessment of how much intention there is to do something (go out) that is not given in the sentence itself, but that in context is or will be understood -- nonetheless, or nevertheless, or despite that, or without consideration of that.

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The difference can be in the relation to the precedent

Nonetheless may discard it

She was tired; nonetheless, she cleaned.

Nevertheless may introduce augmentation

She bought a bike, a car, and a boat, and nevertheless, she thought about small aircraft, too.

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The Age of ‘Nevertheless’

Historically, the most striking difference between nevertheless and nonetheless is how much older nevertheless is. Samuel Johnson includes it in his original Dictionary of the English Language (1756):

NEVERTHELESS. ad. [never the less.] Notwithstanding that. Bacon.

That last notation means that Johnson found an instance of the word in Francis Bacon’s works; Bacon died in 1626. And it appears in Google Books search results going at least as far back as Injunctions Given by the Queens Majesty, Concerning Both the Clergy and the Laity of this Realm (1559):

  1. Also, For as much as variance and contention is a thing that most displeaseth God, and is most contrary to the blessed Communion of the body and blood of our Saviour Christ, Curates shall in no wise admit to the receiving thereof any of their cure and flock, which be openly known to live in sin without repentance, or hath maliciously and openly contended with his Neighbor, unless the same do first charitably and openly reconcile himself again, remitting all rancor and malice, whatsoever controversie hath been between them. And nevertheless, the just titles and rights they may charitably prosecute before such as have authority to hear the same.

  1. Also, That they shall take away, utterly extinct and destroy all Shrines, coverings of Shrines, all Tables, Candlesticks, Trindals, and Rolls of Wax, Pictures, Paintings, and all other Monuments of feigned Miracles, Pilgrimages, Idolatry an Superstition, so that there remain no memory of the same in walls, glass-windows, or elsewhere within their Churches and Houses, preserving nevertheless, or repairing both the walls and glass-windows ; and they shall exhort all their Parishioners to do the like, within their several Houses.

The Youth of ‘Nonetheless’

But Johnson does not have an entry for nonetheless—and neither do the various Webster’s dictionaries published between 1806 and 1960. In fact, the first Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary to include an entry for nonetheless is the Seventh Edition (1963), with the briefest of definitions:

nonetheless adv : NEVERTHELESS

That’s not to say that the phrase “none the less” does not long predate the twentieth century. A Google Books search for “none the less” turns up matches from the early 1700s, such as this example from A Review of the Affairs of France (March 13, 1705):

First, This Gentleman begs the Question, That there being so much Yarn Spun in Yorkshire, there is none the less Spun anywhere else.

And so many Stuffs made in London, there is none the less made in Norwich.

And many later matches are structured along similar lines, like this one from The National Preacher (February 1832):

Man sustains two relations to God. He is a moral agent, that is, susceptible of obligations, and he is dependant on God for sanctifying impressions. In the former relation he is active, in the latter he is passive. These two relations are almost entirely independent of each other. That is to say, we are none the less dependant for being under obligations ; and on the other hand, we are none the less bound to believe because faith is " the gift of God," and none the less bound to love because love is " the fruit of the Spirit.”

And this one from George Aiton, “The Purpose of English in the High School” (read November 1896, and reprinted from School Review 1897):

A bowlder is none the less granitic because gray lichens fleck its sides. Gibraltar is none the less a fortress because wild vines festoon its precipices. Longfellow is none the less great because blue-eyed banditti trampled over his dignity. The human heart is none the less true to stern and difficult duty because a little of the beauty and of the pleasure of life has crept into it.

And this one from Max Lerner, Ideas Are Weapons: The History and Uses of Ideas (1939):

It is no historical accident but a matter of cultural logic that a Field should grow where a Morgan does; and a Brandeis is none the less organic a product of capitalist society than is a Debs. If the contrast between the first pair and the second is precipitous it is none the less contrast and not contradiction.

In each of these instances, “none the less” does not mean “nevertheless”; it means “not any less.” In the Lerner quotation, however, you can see how the second instance of “none the less” might be taken to mean “nevertheless,” whereas the first instance of “none the less” simply could not be understood that way. This seems to be what occurred with the one-word form nonetheless when it emerged in the first half of the twentieth century. For example, from Noel Busch, “Donald Nelson,” in Life magazine (July 6, 1942):

During the years when Nelson was practicing it as diligently as possible, U. S. business was undergoing a most extraordinary experience. Since, in effect, business is the U. S., efforts to belittle it patently constitute a sort of treason. Nonetheless, shortly after the last war apparently animated by an involved kind of masochism, U. S. intellectuals began not only to belittle but to berate, bedevil and belabor business by every means that came to mind. … Fundamentally, the question of whether U.S. business is good or bad is about as realistic as the question of whether U.S. air is good or bad. Nonetheless, by 1932 precisely this question had become the chief issue in a presidential campaign.

Changes in Frequency Over Time

An Ngram chart for the years 1800 through 2008 for the terms “nevertheless” (the red line), “never the less” (the yellow line), “nonetheless” (the blue line), and “none the less” (the green line) shows how the frequency of “none the less” has dropped in the past 80 years as the frequency of “nonetheless” has risen:

In addition, the frequency of “nevertheless” has taken a hit during the same time period, which suggests that in some of instances where people might have used nevertheless in the past, they may now be using nonetheless instead. If so, this state of affairs may provide another indication that the two terms now mean virtually the same thing.

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I think in analyzing the two words nonetheless and nevertheless, we should separate the different parts and ask what the meanings of never and none are.

  • None means “nothing” or “the absence of”.
  • Never means “impossible”.

So I ask you, is the distinction between never and none clear?

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protected by RegDwigнt Jul 30 '13 at 17:10

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