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My German wife recently came up with this sentence while we were practicing English:

Yes, sorry I'm neither born in the 1900 or read an old Shakespeare, to know any old English word

My natural correction was to say:

I was neither born in the 1900s, nor have I read an old Shakespearian novel, to be able to know any old English words

But this also doesn't feel right to me. In German I guess I could use the structure:

I was neither born in the 1900's, nor have I read an old Shakespearian novel, um any old English words to know

And the closest thing I can think of in English for this purpose, although the literal translation of "um" is "in order to" (which I guess is similar to "to be able to"), is "that" or "so that". But I don't think "so that" is correct, because I feel like this implies a positive case, that they do know some old English words. But using just "that" also feels wrong:

I was neither born in the 1900's, nor have I read an old Shakespearian novel, that I might know any old English words

And now when I read the first sentence again, I can't help but wonder if that was in some ways more Grammatically correct for the rest of the sentence structure? I couldn't find anything on Google to help me sort this out.

So two questions:

  • What conjunction do I use at the end of a "neither / nor" list to mean "in order to"?
  • How do I correctly say this example sentence?

Updates:

  • Oops, someone pointed out Shakespeare didn't write any novels, so you can replace "novel" with "play"
  • I'm curious to know if this can be done while keeping the sentence negative, "I wasn't born in ..." while still being Grammatically correct.
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  • @fev oops, my lack of culture showing re Shakespeare - will fix that. I'm still curious if there is any way to do it in the negative case of "I wasn't"?
    – Liam DM
    Commented Nov 23, 2022 at 11:48
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    You could simply use and don't know..., although to sounds OK. I think there are different shades of formality - in an informal context you might use and don't or so I don't; formally I'm less sure what is optimal.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Nov 23, 2022 at 11:53
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    The context is basically [Assertion1] therefore [Asertion2], but no matter what conjunction you use, I'm neither born in the 1900s nor have I read Shakespeare [conjunction] I don't know Old English words probably isn't the best way to express it. I'd reverse the two assertions: I don't know Old English words because I'm neither born in the 1900s nor have I read Shakespeare. I think most people would be more likely to end with something like ...because I wasn't born in the 1900s and I haven't read Shakespeare (forget neither/nor here; it's too complicated). Commented Nov 23, 2022 at 12:07
  • Hello, Liam. Note that Shakespeare's language was Early Modern English (~1500 to ~1750), not Old English. Perhaps ' ... archaic English words'. Commented Nov 23, 2022 at 15:17
  • My goodness, Shakespeare did not write novels! He wrote plays and poems.
    – Lambie
    Commented Nov 26, 2022 at 16:40

3 Answers 3

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What conjunction do I use at the end of a "neither / nor" list to mean "in order to"?

The phrase in order to functions as a subordinating conjunction and means: a) for the purpose of, b) as a means to, c) with the aim of, etc. So, it only makes sense to say something like this if we have a purpose or intention or aim. But the sentence in question doesn't mean this. Your not being born in the 1900s isn't purposeful. Neither is your not having read any Shakespeare. Since these conditions lack purpose, it's incoherent to follow up by insisting that they do.

How do I correctly say this example sentence?

One of your example sentences is correct: I was neither born in the 1900's, nor have I read an old Shakespearian novel, that I might know any old English words.

The subordinating conjunction that works here, but not because it expresses a purpose. It works because it expresses a result. In my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, the fourth definition of that as a conjunction is:

Definition

Introducing a clause expressing a result or consequence (in fact or >in supposition): Now usu. with antecedent so or such.

Examples

OE.Shakes. Wint. T. - I'd shriek, that even your ears Should rift to hear me.

W. Cowper - Did famine or did plague prevail That so much death appears?

H. Carpenter - A dormouse (who lived to be so old that its eyebrows turned white).

Guardian - Brands of soya yoghurt…so unpalateable that they have ended up down the sink.

So, in your sentence, the that is introducing the reader to the consequence (not purpose) of your not being born in the 1900s and your not having read Shakespeare.


You could also use your other construction: to be able to. You could say,

"I was neither born in the 1900s, nor have I read any Shakespearean text, to be able to know any Old English words."

(Note my emendations: [1900's --> 1900s], [Shakespearian --> Shakespearean], [old English --> Old English.])

This formulation also works because the idea of being able to regards abilities. And in your sentence, you're indeed talking about an ability, albeit one you lack.

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@PoundHash has made a good attempt to provide a conjunction, but I don’t find either of his suggestions represent standard usage by native speakers. My own opinion is that this is one of the many examples of the fact that different languages have different sentence structures (German with its rules of word order, especially) and that a non-native speaker must learn to stop trying to translate word for word, but identify the idea and then try to express it in the way one does in the other language. Sorry to preach, but I have the scars from trying to express myself in other European languages. So, my answer is:

There is probably no way of substituting an English conjunction for the German, um, in these circumstances, without the sentence appearing clumsy or unnatural. It is more natural in an English sentence of this type to put the conjunction at the start of a neither/nor clause, rather than at the end.

I would rephrase (extensively) e.g.

I am afraid that as I was neither born in 1900 nor have read Shakespeare, I am not familiar with archaic English words.

(Of course the grouping of Shakespearian English and that of 1900 is most questionable, but as this was the example…)

Notice the what I have done is to change the word order, putting the clause with the conjunction, as, at the beginning, and the conjunction at the beginning of the clause, not the end. I could reverse the order of the clauses, but the conjunction will still be in a different clause (that of the reason) from the German (that of the consequence).

One can maintain the order of ideas and that of a linked consequence, but I think that requires either two sentences or a ‘cheat’ comma:

Unfortunately, I was neither born in 1900 nor have I read Shakespeare, so I am not familiar with archaic English words.

The poster’s attention is also drawn to the fact that this example uses two different auxiliaries — ‘was’ and ‘have’ — in the neither/nor structure. Using ‘am’ as in the example is not the correct tense, and is wrong for ‘read’.

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  • As being born in 1900 and having read Shakespeare are not necessary conditions for being familiar with antiquated English words (though doubtless the second condition is pretty usual for those who are familiar with such words), one could, in conversation, hedge this: "I'm sorry, I'm not familiar with antiquated English words ... my excuse is I wasn't born in 1900 and I've not read any Shakespeare." Commented Nov 26, 2022 at 16:03
  • By idiomatic I think you mean in Western vernacular. I would agree. But I'd also add so what? Why should anyone feel compelled to speak like others if others speak so poorly? The decline of reading and the rise of bullet points (emphasized with words like very, very very, and very very very) is nothing to acquiesce to. No writer worth their salt writes like others speak, unless their voicing local color.
    – Pound Hash
    Commented Nov 26, 2022 at 17:50
  • @PoundHash — By idiomatic I meant the natural way an educated native speaker would speak — the idiom or way of speaking of the educated, nothing to do with either speaking poorly or mindless aping of trends. My answer to "so what" is that in learning to speak a language, one's aim is to use the sentence structures and choice of words that a native of your social class would use, the assumption being that posters to this list do not work as navies or the like. (If you are a Gastarbeiter and work digging trenches in Swabia, you learn a different German from a Heidelberg professor.)
    – David
    Commented Nov 26, 2022 at 18:19
  • @EricAshworth — Yes, by using two sentences. I have added a form of this in a single sentence using "so" as a conjunction, but I regard it as something of a cheat and it still maintains the false premise which one can hardly do in answering this question. Perhaps just an expression like "I have not read Shakespeare and Chaucer" would convey the idea of not having the education that would bring one in contact with archaic English.
    – David
    Commented Nov 26, 2022 at 18:38
  • @David That's a fair point. Yet, our having university alumni who believe the Earth is flat seems to suggest (at least to me) that such standards are moot. Also, if I were to speak like those of my social class, I'd have to abandon half the words I've worked so hard to learn.
    – Pound Hash
    Commented Nov 26, 2022 at 18:45
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Yes the sentence is correct. A few surplus words for additional clarity can do no harm.

Yes, sorry I'm neither born in the 1900 nor read an old Shakespeare, for me to know any old English word.

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  • 1
    A few corrections in your reconstructed sentence if I may. "Neither and nor" and "either and or" are negative or affirmative pairs. I am not sure if "an old" is definitely needed.
    – banuyayi
    Commented Nov 27, 2022 at 8:12

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