The Grammarphobia Blog

Don’t be a so-and-so

Q: I was taught to use “so” rather than “as” at the beginning of a negative comparison like the one in this sentence: “She’s not so tall as her sister.” Is this rule to be abandoned? Please tell me that it has not gone the way of “None of them is here,” meaning “Not one of them is here.”

A: It’s perfectly acceptable to use either “as … as” or “so … as” in negative constructions, according to modern usage guides. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, for example, says a writer “can choose the one that sounds better in any given instance.”

This isn’t a new thing, either. Writers have been using “as … as” as well as “so … as” in negative statements since the 18th century. Merriam-Webster’s says the usage can be found in the writings of Swift, Johnson, Boswell, and others.

In 1785, a grammarian named J. Mennye decreed that only “so … as” could be used in negative expressions. Although the idea caught on with language authorities, writers continued to use whichever construction sounded best to them. In fact, some writers used both of them.

In 1795, the historian Henry Adams used “so … as” in a negative comparison of 13th-century cathedrals and 15th-century chateaus. But he used “as … as” negatively a year later: “The Church never was as rotten as the stock-exchange now is.”

It wasn’t until well into the first half of the 20th century that usage guides began to accept “as … as” in negative expressions, according to Merriam-Webster’s.

Today, that’s the view of the leading usage guides, including Garner’s Modern American Usage, The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, and Merriam-Webster’s.

Interestingly, both “as” and “so” are derived from the same Old English word, alswa, which was used in comparisons eight or more centuries ago pretty much the way we use “as” these days: alswa brihht alswa gold (as bright as gold).

As for “none,” many people have been mistakenly taught that it always means “not one.” Not so! I discuss this misconception on the Grammar Myths page of Grammarphobia.com.

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