Emphatic nor

The text for today, from the excerpts (in the NYT yesterday) from Sarah Palin’s statement resigning as governor of Alaska:

I’ve never believed that I, nor anyone else, needs a title to do this — to make a difference, to help people.

My comment here is on the nor of nor anyone else. I would probably have used or myself, but Palin’s usage isn’t non-standard. But some commenters have had qualms about nor in cases like this.

Here’s Garner’s Modern American Usage on “nor for or“:

When the negative of a clause or phrase has appeared at the outset of an enumeration, and a disjunctive conjunction is needed, or is generally better than nor. The initial negative carries through to all the enumerated elements–e.g.:

“There have been no bombings nor [read or] armed attacks by one side against the other.”

First observation: in this case (as in many others in GMAU) Garner’s advice is mildly framed (“generally better”; “preferable” is another variant), yet he directs writers to replace nor by or. At first, this advice would appear to be just a statement of Garner’s personal preferences (other people might have different preferences), but then he goes on to frame a generalization that supports this preference: the initial negative carries through to all the enumerated elements (so that the negation need not be repeated; though Garner doesn’t say this, the suggestion is that later negation is redundant).

But we’re entitled to ask where this generalization comes from. As it stands, it’s a flat assertion about the form and interpretation of negated disjunctions. In fact, it’s just a restatement of the advice to use or instead of nor.

When we go on to ask whether this is the way standard English actually works, we see little backing for Garner’s assertion. MWDEU says:

Nor frequently replaces or in negative statements

and cites examples from James Thurber, Stephen Leacock, William Faulkner (in non-fiction), and linguist Edward Finegan in his 1980 book Attitudes toward English Usage. Note that MWDEU is not recommending that nor be used instead of or, only saying that both variants are acceptable in standard English. (Although MWDEU usually cites advice literature condemning the usages it examines, it doesn’t do so in this case.)

Sometimes in cases of variation within the standard, MWDEU ends up telling the readers that they can use whichever variant sounds best to them in the circumstances. Sometimes, though, they suggest different nuances that might be conveyed by one choice or the other. In the nor/or case, they note that nor is sometimes more emphatically negative than or — an effect that is to be expected, since nor is explicitly negative (while or picks up its negativity from the syntactic context). That is, nor in this construction is reinforced negation. Maybe that’s what Sarah Palin was after in her statement (though it’s always dangerous to try to read intentions in such situations).

3 Responses to “Emphatic nor

  1. Ellen K. Says:

    I’m reading that as the commas setting it off as a parenthetical-like addition, and as such it has to be nor, not or.

  2. Sam Says:

    From the perspective of boolean logic, the NOR operator makes a lot of sense in these cases, the operator being true only if none of the conditions are individually true, the opposite of the OR statement, which is true if any or all of the conditions are individually true.

    It seems we do this linguistically automatically, either by using “not (this or that)” or “this nor that”, which corresponds to the logic.

    One thing that confuses me though, which I wonder if you have thoughts on, is that people seem to use “or” in two ways, one equivalent to the logical OR, in which any (or all) of the conditions being true makes the or statement true, but other people take “or” to mean the logical XOR, which is only true if one, but not the other, is true. Whenever I see someone type “and/or”, I’m surprised, and reminded that some people don’t think of “or” as including the “and” possibility.

    Sarah Palin believes that OR includes the AND possibility by default, when she uses NOR as the logical opposite of OR, as do most people using NOR, but that doesn’t seem to carry over to people’s use of OR as often.

  3. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To Sam: step 1 is distinguishing the English words or and nor for the logical operators OR and XOR (which are not themselves words of any natural language). For some discussion see the items here (“postings about or“).

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