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Let's consider the following sentence:

Ducks are things that walk like ducks and quack like ducks.

Now, I wanna negate it to describe something that is not a duck. The most verbose way to do it might probably be something like:

Dogs are things that do not walk like ducks and do not quack like ducks.

While this seems to be grammatically correct to me, the repetition of does not makes this sentence rather crude. I would like something a bit more concise. My attempt to achieve this could result in something like this:

Dogs are things that do not walk and quack like ducks.

Now I'm not so sure what my phrase actually means. That the dogs do not walk at all but do quack like ducks? That the dogs do not walk like ducks but do quack like ducks? Or, maybe, it actually means what I wanted it to mean: that neither dogs walk like ducks nor they quack like them.

Okay. Maybe I should view this sentence from the position of the formal mathematical logic. What we have here is an A & B construct (walking & quacking), and I'm trying to apply negation to it: !(A & B). Mathematical logic suggests that !(A & B) is equal to !A | !B, that is, not A or not B. So maybe I should switch to a different conjunction? Let's try that:

Dogs are things that do not walk or quack like ducks.

Did that help? Or maybe it made everything even worse? I'm totally confused. Please help me find a balance between being not overly verbose and keeping what I try to say clear.

Thanks!

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I would say:

Dogs neither walk nor quack like ducks.

  • 1
    Rocks neither eat nor shine like stars. Using your suggestion, is the reader intended to assume that stars eat? – Ian MacDonald Mar 11 '15 at 13:48
  • Of course stars eat. (-: – Peter Shor Mar 11 '15 at 13:55
  • In my attempt to avoid using walk in my counterexample, I have inadvertently stumbled upon hungry stars. -_- Rocks neither walk nor shine likes stars. ... unless you're going to tell me that stars walk, too! – Ian MacDonald Mar 11 '15 at 14:02
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    @PeterShor I was expecting your link to go to a story about Lindsay Lohan’s eating disorders or something like that … – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 11 '15 at 15:10
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If you are happy with the level of verbosity of

Ducks walk like ducks and quack like ducks.

then, IMO, you are bound to be happy with the level of verbosity of

Dogs neither walk like ducks nor quack like ducks.

But if, on the other hand, you do not mind the (potential) ambiguity of

Ducks walk and quack like ducks.

then, of course, neither will you mind the (potential) ambiguity of

Dogs neither walk nor quack like ducks.

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Both of the more succinct sentences that you propose suffer from ambiguity.

Dogs are things that do not walk and quack like ducks.

From this, one could read:

  • Dogs do not walk; and
  • Dogs quack like ducks.

Dogs are things that do not walk or quack like ducks.

From this, one could read:

  • Dogs do not walk; or
  • Dogs quack like ducks; or
  • Dogs are afflicted with both conditions.

Because both misinterpretations have trouble linking do not walk with like ducks, duplicating like ducks adds clarity. Additionally, if you use nor, the reader will read the negation through to the second term.

Dogs are things that do not walk like ducks nor quack like ducks.

Alternatively, since quacking is something that (generally) only ducks do, you could reverse the order and help the reader, even without removing all ambiguity entirely. You'll still want nor to ensure the negation commutes.

Dogs are things that do not quack nor walk like ducks.

If you wanted to break the rules of grammar and lean more towards mathematical description (as I often like to do), you could use parentheses to eliminate ambiguity:

Dogs are things that do not (walk or quack) like ducks.

  • Thanks for your answer. Apparently, not much can be done to shorten the initial variant I proposed. Still, solution using nor does look slightly more elegant. I also know that quacking is a trait that belongs to ducks rather exclusively. It was simply a form of a reference joke, maybe not a very good one =). – Semisonic Mar 11 '15 at 13:30
  • Driveby downvotes are helpful. </sarcasm> – Ian MacDonald Mar 11 '15 at 13:42
  • I'm trying to decide whether the sentence "Dogs are things that do not walk or quack like ducks" would ever be interpreted this way by a native English speaker. If it would, then you would have to conclude that switching the order of the pieces joined by "or" gives a reasonable English sentence. But "Dogs are things that quack like ducks or do not walk," sounds really off to me. – Peter Shor Mar 11 '15 at 13:52
  • @PeterShor It only sounds off to you because you know that dogs walk. This was an example sentence intended to demonstrate the ambiguity and ask for help. Here's a different example: "Criminals don't get caught or go to jail." This should help you understand why there is ambiguity. – Ian MacDonald Mar 11 '15 at 13:57
  • @Ian: but that does that mean "criminals either don't get caught or else they go to jail" or "criminals neither get caught nor go to jail"? I would interpret that as unambiguously having the second meaning, while to be parallel with your duck sentence, it needs to have the first meaning. – Peter Shor Mar 11 '15 at 14:01

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