Occasionally I hear the word “no” used in a sentence where “not” seems more grammatical. I attribute this to idiom.

For example I sometimes hear someone say, “That’s no fair,” or “That’s no good,” which seems grammatically parallel to the suggestion that I’m no tall. (Similarly we hear “Is this any good,” while nobody would ask whether my brother is any tall.)

But on consideration there seem to be lots of parallel cases that sound right to me, for no reason that I can put my finger on. The following examples form a sort of spectrum until replacing “no” with “not” seems impossible.

  • I’m no tall.
  • That’s no fair.
  • That’s no good.
  • That’s no different.
  • He’s no better than a common criminal.
  • He’s no stronger than I am.
  • Eating is no longer permitted in this library.

This last example seems to cross the adjective-adverb membrane. Would "no longer" be preferred to "not longer" for some reason that nonetheless prefers "not still permitted" and "not yet permitted" to "no still" and "no yet"?

What is the distinction among these examples that permits "no," or "not," or either of them arbitrarily?

  • "I’m no tall" doesn't sound right to me. "I'm no taller [than she is]" and "I'm no giant" are, for example, both OK though. Not sure I have any explanation for this though, just native speaker's intuition. – Laurel Mar 5 '18 at 18:54
  • Similar: the difference between “no”, “not” and “none”? The answer there is flawed in that it does not mention that "no" is not only used as a negator for nouns, but also for adjectives in some cases. – herisson Mar 5 '18 at 18:54
  • Also What is the difference between “no” and “not”?. I have edited the title of this post to try to make it clearer that this interesting question is not the same as questions and answers about the use of "no" before nouns. I think you have gone some way to answering your own question with your observation that we can say "any good", "any taller", "any different", "any better", "any stronger", "any longer". The outlier seems to be "no fair". – herisson Mar 5 '18 at 18:56
  • @Laurel That's what I meant to say. The first example (no tall) seems wrong, the last examples (no stronger, no longer) seem right, and I'm not sure I see the rule at work. – Chaim Mar 5 '18 at 19:50
  • @Laurel And in your example "I'm no giant," the word "giant" is a noun. – Chaim Mar 5 '18 at 19:54

I just want to summarize here my thoughts about the original question and the comments I've read since posting. I'd be thrilled if someone actually knowledgeable on the subject could obviate this so-called answer, taking whatever is good in it.

  1. Generally, simple adjectives require “not” rather than “no.” For example we may say “I am not tall,” but not “I am no tall.”
  2. Truly comparative adjectival forms always permit either ‘no’ or ‘not’ in a certain construction, regardless of the concept of “negative polarity items.” I have found no reason for this, but it seems true upon consideration of examples. He is not (or no) older, taller, stronger, nicer, smarter, etc., than I am. “Negative polarity items” are expressions used only with negation, and one of my original examples, “Eating is no longer permitted in the library,” is a negative polarity item because idiom would not permit the affirmative “Eating is longer permitted in the library.” However, I don’t think this distinction is really relevant here, because so far I’ve not thought of any comparative form that insists upon “no” rather than “not” or vice versa. For example, “It is no farther to Cleveland than to Cincinnati” is not a negative polarity item, because idiom would permit the affirmative “It is farther to Cleveland than to Cincinnati,” formed by just omitting the word “no.” But we could instead change “no” to “not.”
  3. In clauses like “There is no greater honor,” or “There is no nobler calling,” “no” is proper because the words following “no” are a noun phrase. This would be true regardless of whether the adjective in the middle were simple or comparative. There is no sweet tea left, there are no cold days in the forecast, etc. To me, "not" is an awkward alternative to "no" in all of these examples.
  4. “That’s no fair” is a common expression that flouts the rule of paragraph 1, requiring “not” with a simple adjective. For example a search at Google Books finds the phrase “that’s no fair” on Page 52 of A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving, and in many other books by little-known writers. At Amazon you can find the expression in the titles of many books, including “No Fair! No Fair! And Other Jolly Poems of Childhood," by Calvin Trillin and Roz Chast. And the expression “that’s no fair” also appears in Brad Paisley’s song Mr. Policeman, although the transcriptions of the lyrics on the web often change “no fair” to “not fair.” The phrases “no fair” may have become idiomatic by associations with another phrase that was apparently quite common in the past, to judge by how often it cropped up in my searches today. Apparently people used to say, “That’s no fair deal.” I found that expression all over the place in literature. In that expression, the word “no” is really attached to a noun phrase, comparable to “That was no lady” and the illustrations in paragraph 3. Perhaps “that’s no fair” was an ellipsis of this expression “that’s no fair deal,” or perhaps through the familiarity of this expression “no fair” just came to sound right.
  5. The phrase “no good” also may have become idiomatic by associations with other phrases, expressions like “No good can come of this,” in which the word “good” is a noun. It sounds fairly natural to me to use “no good” like “no use,” in expressions like “It’s no good asking him now; he’s already made up his mind.” In such a construction I think that it’s arguable what parts of speech are involved.
  6. The phrase “no different” seems to be another common exception. Perhaps this is based on the same analogy to comparative adjectives that leads people to say “different than,” imitating comparisons like “older than,” instead of following “different” with a preposition, as we do in logically comparable cases like “congruent with,” “distinguishable from,” “equal to,” “identical with,” etc. (Perhaps we should expect “different with” or “different from,” since we say “differs with” or “differs from.”)
  7. In the last original example, “Eating is no longer permitted in the library,” the phrase “no longer” works together as an adverb, comparable to “not yet.” I’m not clear if that adverbial status matters to the problem. But both expressions are negative polarity items; we don’t say that “I have yet begun to fight” any more than “It is longer allowed.” And yet one requires “no,” and one requires “not.” So I still have no insight into those examples.
  8. And I agree that there’s something relevant about the use of “any” in expressions like "any good," "any taller," "any different," "any better," "any stronger" and "any longer." But I’m not sure what that relevance is.

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