I know that neither–nor yields a negative meaning if used in a sentence that has a positive verb structure. That is, when we say:

Neither George nor James goes to school.

we mean:

George does not go to school and James does not go to school.

By positive verb structure, I mean the usage of go rather than not go. Since neither negates the positive go, this sentence gains a negative meaning. This is very clear to me. What I am wondering is the history of this rule. At some point in time in history, did the usage of

Neither George nor James does not go to school.

exist to yield a negative meaning, i.e.:

George does not go to school and James does not go to school.

Why I am asking this is that my native language is Turkish, and we have the same rule: Ne a ne b (Neither a nor b) must be accompanied by a positive verb to yield a negative meaning. But the rule doesn't really sound logical to many (even highly educated) people, hence they make a mistake of using a negative verb and assuming a negative meaning.

Besides that, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, an eminent author, used that very now-incorrect usage in his first page of Saatleri Ayarlama Enstitüsü, a super-central book in Turkish literature. It was the year of 1961 when he did that. Another example is the phenomenal poem titled "Sessiz Gemi" ("Silent Ship"), circa 1920, in which the prominent poet Yahya Kemal Beyatlı wrote

Neither a handkerchief nor a hand is not waived at that departure.

So I am wondering whether the usage of neither–nor with a positive verb has a pretty solid and stable history, or it was indeed used with a negative verb as well, some time in the past.

Just a resource I'd like to include: "A note on the history of either" by Hotze Rullmann at the University of Calgary, on page 11, shows the negative verb usage with neither only, but I am looking for negative verbs with the full neither–nor.

Update: For the sake of inclusiveness, here is the stock of neither not negating the verb, taken from the aforementioned article:

  1. Shakespeare wrote "Be not too tame neither", to mean "Don't be too tame" but today we'd say "Be not too tame either" to mean that. So "neither" did not negate the "Be not too tame" to yield a meaning of "Be too tame".
  2. Defoe wrote "You don’t know that neither", to mean "There are things you don't know, and also, you don't know that particular one as well". Neither did not negate "You don't know" to yield a meaning of "You do know". The right form today must be "You don’t know that either"
  • I don't think I've ever come across it used in that sense, which probably means it hasn't been widely used in writing for a good couple of hundred years, if ever. I think there is a general trend towards concord, which is illustrated by what you say about Turkish, but from at least the 19th century, this was strongly deprecated in English, and that mindset still hasn't quite gone away. I would guess that Turkish speakers also say the price is expensive and it weighs heavy.
    – user339660
    Commented Jul 19, 2019 at 12:24
  • The Shakespeare and Defoe examples you quote are different constructions. They are examples of double negatives, which have always been common in English but are now considered non-standard and associated with informal language. “I don’t want that neither” remains perfectly common in spoken language, but it is [verb negated with not] + [additional negative word] yielding a negative, which is different from [negated subject] + [verb negated with not]. Compare “I didn’t see nobody” (I saw no one) with “Nobody didn’t see me” (everyone saw me). Commented Jul 19, 2019 at 17:33
  • The "double negative" is generally discouraged in English writing and speech, because it, at best, is difficult to parse "on the fly" and hence often leads to confusion. And in many cases the meaning will be ambiguous to even careful readers/listeners. (I would guess that this same concern is present in other languages.)
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jul 19, 2019 at 22:36
  • @HotLicks Most other languages either have or don’t have double negatives; English is somewhat unusual in both having them and not having them (that is, having them, but only optionally, and generally only in certain registers). Where they are used, however, they rarely cause problems. “I ain’t got no patience for none of that!” is unlikely to be seriously understood by anyone as “I have time for some of that”. In most other languages, it would either mandatorily mean “I have no time for any of that” or mandatorily mean “I have time for some of that”. Commented Jul 21, 2019 at 0:03
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Perhaps English’s quirkily triggered negative polarity items can be thought of as their own sort of negative concord, even if we still don’t know diddly about squatitative negation. :)
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 21, 2019 at 0:18

2 Answers 2


To answer your question, as far as we know, there was no time in history when

  • *Neither George nor James doesn't go to school.

meant the same thing in English as

  • Neither George nor James goes to school.

Logically, Neither P Nor Q means                   [¬P ⋀ ¬Q]   (Not P And Not Q),
which is equivalent by DeMorgan's Law to   ¬[P ⋁ Q]       (Not [P Or Q]).

  • Thanks for your answer, John. This makes perfect sense to me. Can you please take a look at the two examples from Shakespeare and Defoe, that I've added to my question? In those cases, neither doesn't seem to negate the sentences - which makes me think the negation functionality was not always in place. Could that be the case?
    – FatihAkici
    Commented Jul 22, 2019 at 21:00
  • Those two usages are straightforward negative concord, like I don't want none instead of I don't want any. It may have been more common then than it is today, when negative concord is discouraged as low-class speech. Commented Jul 22, 2019 at 21:03

The parallel structure of neither-nor is:

Neither [noun 1] nor [noun 2] [verb].

Each noun has the verb individually applied to it.

There is nothing about the grammar that necessitates the verb be of a positive form. It typically is only out of concern for comprehension that the negative is avoided. It's not that it used to be in existence but no longer is. It still is in existence if somebody wants to use it.

For instance, this is grammatical:

  1. Neither George nor James doesn't go to school.

Which would mean:

  1. Both George and James do go to school.

But while the first sentence is grammatical, it's also difficult to parse and something that wouldn't normally be said. Far more often than not, the first sentence would be rephrased to something like the second sentence. (Also, in the second sentence, the use of do would be dropped. Unless you're emphasizing it, it's unecessary.)

  • Thanks for your answer! I think I could've clarified my question better. What I am wondering is the usage of neither-nor and a negative verb yielding a negative meaning. i.e. the sentence of "Neither George nor James doesn't go to school." yielding a meaning of "George does not go to school and James does not go to school".
    – FatihAkici
    Commented Jul 19, 2019 at 9:37
  • @FatihAkici Neither-nor will always express a negative of the verb that it uses. That's why, in parsing it, it results in the opposite upon expansion. Are you suggesting that at some point in the past neither (and nor) didn't actually have a negative meaning? I can't think of any reason why either word would have started off with a different (even opposite) definition than they have now. Without something you can point to that indicates such a possibility, it seems highly unlikely. Commented Jul 19, 2019 at 10:05
  • @FatihAkici Because, to be clear, your example in the above comment yields a positive meaning. Parsing it to mean the identical thing as if the positive verb were used is a mistake. Only in colloquial double negatives ("I don't know nothing!") does something have an idiomatically emphasized negative meaning rather than its logically expanded positive meaning. Neither-nor constructions are not colloquial or idiomatically the same as the expressions used in that kind of informal use. Commented Jul 19, 2019 at 10:10

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