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Let's take the following two statements.

He who lives in a glass house shall not cast stones (1)

He who lives in a glass house shall have his toilet in the basement. (2)

Now, if we try to combine them like this:

Not only shall he who lives in a glass house not cast stones, but also have his toilet in the basement. (3)

Does this mean he shall have his toilet in the basement or that they shall not have his toilet in the basement? How far does the scope of the not in shall not cast stones go?

This is the actual example I was thinking about. It is possible to construct a more concise one:

Not only was it not green, but also red.

Was it red or wasn't it?

If it so happens that this is an inherently ambiguous and/or ungrammatical sentence/structure, then I am ready to accept that as an answer as well.

  • Yes and yes...toilet in basement and red. Strip out the details and you have "not only but also". – Kristina Lopez Nov 11 '15 at 18:56
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    But I’d write: Not only shall he who lives in a glass house not cast stones, but he shall also have his toilet in the basement – Jim Nov 11 '15 at 19:15
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    But means and, logically. A but B just means A and B, with an additional invited inference that B is somehow surprising to the speaker, or that the speaker expects the addressee to find B surprising. Or both, which is the prototype. – John Lawler Nov 11 '15 at 19:20
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    I am afraid most people misread the question. @KristinaLopez The question is really whether we have "not only not X but also [not] Y". – anemone Nov 11 '15 at 20:06
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    @ArmenԾիրունյան - The sentence you asked about -- *Not only shall he not cast stones, but also have his toilet in the basement -- is ungrammatical. It should be .., but he shall also ... Conjunction Reduction won't delete he shall under identity with shall he. – John Lawler Nov 12 '15 at 0:49
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How you interpret the construction

Not only was it not X, but also Y.

depends on where you locate the node that the parallel elements in the construction attach to—and consequently what the parallel elements themselves are. It is possible for people to disagree on this issue, which means that some level of ambiguity is inherent in the construction. Nevertheless, I think that the most logical way to read the wording is to see it as establishing the connection point immediately after "was it"/"it was." This makes the parallel branches "not X" and "Y," and it means that, with the implied words "it was" in place, we get this result:

Not only was it not X, but also [it was] Y.

The alternative reading is to infer that the parallelism arises immediately after the word not, yielding the parallel branches "X" and "Y." But this interpretation requires two interpolations in the original sentence:

Not only was it not X, but [it was] also [not] Y.

which I think requires a reader or hearer to perform a more complicated set of mental gymnastics in order to reach the desired result, making it (to me) a less plausible interpretation.

If I were a lawyer trying to persuade a court that a contract specifying "Not only not X but Y" meant "neither X nor Y," I would certainly argue for the more complicated reading, but if I were the judge, I wouldn't buy it.

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    @anemone: Thanks for pointing out the serious mistake I made in overlooking the presence of not at a crucial point in the OP's example. I have reworked my earlier answer to take that crucial word's presence into account, and I hope that the answer now has some practical value. – Sven Yargs Nov 11 '15 at 20:57
  • Very well put, I think. – anemone Nov 11 '15 at 21:15

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