Consider the following sentences:

  1. John and Mary are not tall.
  2. Neither John nor Mary is tall

Is the first one acceptable (especially in formal writing), or should I always use the second?

Update: I don't think this question is a duplicate of Controversy over verb choice in "neither you nor I {is/am/are} in control". In particular, this question is not about which verb to use in the neither/nor sentence but about whether the other (first) sentence is acceptable. To be sure, the doubt is whether it is correct to use a compound subject (John and Mary) to talk about features that are essentially individual (John is not tall and Mary is not tall).

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    They're both quite grammatical, and they mean the same thing. Speaker's choice. Mar 17 '15 at 16:40

A native English speaker wouldn't see a difference between the two, except that the first sounds slightly more conversational; the meanings are otherwise identical.

If the two things being compared aren't easy to recognize in the structure of the sentence, you should pick the form that reads more naturally. For example, consider the following two examples:

"Neither steak and potatoes nor ice cream and chocolate are healthy meals."

This implies there are two things being considered: (1) steak and potatoes, and (2) ice cream and chocolate.

"Steak and potatoes and ice cream and chocolate are not healthy meals."

This implies that four separate meals are being considered: (1) steak, (2) potatoes, (3) ice cream, (4) chocolate, which is different from the first case.


There is a problem that arises when "logical" terminology intermingles with ordinary English terminology. It's not so much a problem with two people and the attribute "tall", but in some other cases (though I can't think of a good example at the moment) the sentence "X and Y are Z" might be taken to imply that together X and Y have the attribute Z (as if it were a statement of Boolean logic), even though they do not separately.

So it's not the case that the first form should not be used, but rather that it must be used with care.

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