In Kipling's story "Below the Mill Dam", this passage occurs:

"He shouted large and vague threats to my address, last night at tea, that he wasn't going to keep cats who 'caught no mice'. Those were his words. I remember the grammar sticking in my throat like a herring-bone."

The speaker, like all cats, is fastidious to the point of pedantry, so the point of grammar can only be a trivial, or even ridiculous, one; but even so I can't see anything wrong with the expression. Can any fellow-pedant, or cat, enlighten me?

6 Answers 6


It's the verb tense.

*I'm not going to keep cats who caught no mice.

is wrong, it should be "catch no mice" or "who have caught no mice."

  • 1
    But the quote didn't include anything other than "caught no mice". The grammar error, if any, was not quoted by the Grey Cat.
    – Daniel
    Commented Jul 30, 2011 at 13:39
  • 2
    I think this is probably right. We have to bear in mind this was written in an age when issues of grammar might often be a bit more "precise" than today, and usage may well have changed somewhat over time. The defining characteristic of these useless cats is that they don't catch mice, full stop. Not that they happen to have caught none yet, or within some other arbitrary timeframe. I think this distinction becomes clearer if you consider the "adjectival phrase" as referring to the ongoing, constant nature of the cats, not their (non-)activities. Commented Jul 30, 2011 at 15:02
  • cf - "I'm not going out drinking with people who don't buy their round". Not "...who haven't bought/didn't buy their round". Commented Jul 30, 2011 at 15:03
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    @Peter Shor: I just noticed OP's final sentence. Maybe you'll be the first at EL&U to earn a "pedant" badge! :) Commented Jul 30, 2011 at 15:06
  • @Peter: I'm not going to keep cats who caught no mice is not actually bad grammar; it's just imprecise.
    – Daniel
    Commented Jul 30, 2011 at 16:05

There is nothing wrong with the grammar of the quoted section (caught no mice); either the speaker was being overly finicky and misjudged the grammar, or he is referring to the grammaticality of the rest of the "large and vague threats".

  • 2
    P.S. Am I supposed to be a pedant or a cat? Now I'm not too sure...
    – Daniel
    Commented Jul 30, 2011 at 20:03

The sentence sounds correct only because the narrator is speaking in the past tense, so "he wasn't going to keep a cat who caught no mice" sounds correct.

Since "caught no mice" is quoted, it can be assumed it's extradite from another, slightly different quote. I'd assume the character who originally spoke the sentencebeing later references would have been speaking in the present tense, as in "I'm not going to keep any cats who..." in which case "caught no mice." would be incorrect grammar. It would have to be "catch no mice" or "haven't caught any mice."

(Please excuse the poor formatting, sent from my iPhone.)


The error must be in the three words in inverted commas "caught no mice." I think it is in the plural "mice". It should be "mouse": if one mouse is singular, no mouse is even less plural, a fortiore.

  • 3
    Sorry, that's wrong: english.stackexchange.com/questions/13073/…
    – Hellion
    Commented Aug 28, 2011 at 4:53
  • No English speaker would say: I didn't eat any french fry. Commented Aug 28, 2011 at 7:41
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    @David: not even the minstrel, moping mum, who sipped no sup, and he craved no crumb? (Gilbert & Sullivan, Yeoman of the Guard I think)? Commented Sep 1, 2011 at 14:39
  • If you are very, very clever, you can find an exception to almost any rule. Commented Sep 1, 2011 at 15:08

Perhaps the objection was to the use of 'who' (used principally of humans) rather than 'which' (used mostly of non-human living things and inanimate objects).

Alternatively, perhaps Kipling was subtly mocking (or drawing attention to) the pedantry of a narrator who would fuss over a point so trivial that normal people would be left scratching their heads about what exactly the problem was supposed to be.

I curse those earlier generations which/who lacked the foresight to seek clarification of this point from Kipling while he was still alive.


Cats who "caught no mice" were useless. Back in those days, cats were kept for the purpose of catching mice. If a cat could not catch mice, it was pronounced useless, and people do not usually want to keep such cats.

In relation to the text above, whoever who was shouting was trying to threaten the main character, by calling him a cat who "caught no mice.", thus inferring that he was useless.

"Caught no mice" is not wrong. There is nothing ungrammatical about the above quote. Other expressions that have similar constructions could be "Did no harm to me." "Did no wrong to her." "Tried it out to no effect." etc.

  • 4
    But that's something wrong with the cat, not with the grammar. Commented Jul 30, 2011 at 11:50

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