I am trying to articulate how to position the determiner/predeterminer ‘both’ behind the nouns being modified. Every rule that I came across on a cursory search involves some unspecified exception, so I have established this working guideline:

  • if the nouns being modified are not within a complement clause and the sentence's first auxiliary verb (if any) is a single word, then insert ‘both’ right after this auxiliary verb;
  • otherwise, insert ‘both’ immediately following the nouns being modified.

Set A: it is always correct to put ‘both’ before its nouns
1a) Both x and y must be positive.
2a) Which of them is green? Both of them are (green).
3a) Both her sons visited the dentist.
4a) Both patients have gingivitis.
5a) I asked both of you to stop doing that!
6a) It's time for both my dogs to be fed.
7a) Let both the birds be free.
8a) The fact is that both of them are culpable.
9a) Make both Jack and Jill sprint.
10a) Invite both of us!

Set B: putting ‘both’ behind its nouns, based on the above guideline
1b) x and y must both be positive.
2b) Which of them is green? They are both green.
3b) Her sons both visited the dentist.
4b) The patients both have gingivitis.
5b) I asked you both to stop doing that!
6b) It's time for my dogs both to be fed.
7b) Let the birds both be free.
8b) The fact is that they both are culpable.
9b) Make Jack and Jill both sprint.
10b) Invite us both!

Set C: putting ‘both’ behind its nouns, flouting the above guideline
1c) x and y both must be positive. *
1d) x and y must be both positive.
2c) Which of them is green? They both are (green). *
5c) I asked you to both stop doing that!
6c) It's time for my dogs to both be fed. *
6d) It's time for my dogs to be both fed.
7c) Let the birds be both free.
8c) The fact is that they are both culpable. *

Is any sentence in Set C—in particular, the four asterisked sentences—grammatically sound or at least colloquially acceptable? Every dictionary and style/usage guide that I skimmed through finds at least one (or every) sentence in Set C to be grammatically problematic. (I'm pretty sure that Set B is fine.)

On a related note: without any italicisation or vocal emphasis, is Set B slightly more emphatic of its nouns' twoness/togetherness than Set A or do they have the exact same meaning?


1 Answer 1

  1. Both is just the dual allomorph of all, and can go wherever all can go (give or take the occasional of).

  2. All (and therefore both) can undergo Quantifier-Float, moving from the noun phrase they bind to an adverbial position immediately after an auxiliary verb in a clause. In a series of auxiliaries like (is being), after the first auxiliary verb is the preferred position, and more common, but before the first, or after the second are not uncommon and both are perfectly grammatical.

  3. As to the revised question: Sorry, your guideline was wrong; but that's science for you. So, yes, both questions in the title are already grammatical, though I can't say about for ever. I.e, there's nothing wrong grammatically either with

Ask them to both be there,
or with
They both will be there.

  • To be clear: are you saying that Sets B and C are both totally grammatical? // Your third paragraph's opening sentence is quite confusing: you refer to my "revised" Question and say that my working guideline "was" wrong: why the past tense, since (the revisions were primarily to alter and expand the example sentences and to focus my main query, and) the only change to my working guideline was the addition of that bit about complement clauses? In fact, how even is my working guideline wrong, since—if I have inferred correctly— my working guideline produces no ungrammatical sentence?
    – ryang
    Oct 9, 2023 at 9:55
  • There are very few non-false-positives for 'Be both free' -'Be both free and' (vs 'both be free') in these Google ngrams. I'd say it's heading for unidiomatic in strings like 'Let them be both free.'. Oct 9, 2023 at 14:50
  • A lot of it seems to be about emphasis, rhythm, and prosody. If you are making a declaration like "Let them both be free", you get a nice dignified rhythm in that order, stressing the important words let/both/free, but "Let them be both free" less so. However, if the stress is primarily on "both" rather than the earlier part of the sentence, you can rearrange it to put both nearer the end rather than in the middle, the middle being generally less emphasised than the start or end.
    – Stuart F
    Oct 10, 2023 at 8:49

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