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When ‘nor’ means ‘neither’

Q: Will you please address the use of “nor” in Shakespeare? Sometimes it differs from modern usage (“Of hot and cold, he was nor sad nor merry,” Antony & Cleopatra), and sometimes not (“He swore, had neither motion, guard, nor eye,” Hamlet).

A: You’ve spotted a construction that’s rare today—the poetic use of “nor” to mean “neither.”

This is sometimes seen in older poetry and drama, with “nor” replacing “neither” at the beginning of a series. So instead of writing “neither X nor Y,” a Shakespeare or a Dryden or a Pope might have written “nor X nor Y.”

As you noticed in Antony and Cleopatra (circa 1607) and Hamlet (c. 1600), Shakespeare might have used “nor” or “neither” at the beginning of a series—a choice undoubtedly determined by rhyme or reason.

The “nor” usage showed up in English writing around the beginning of the 16th century but is now rare, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s usually found in the construction “nor — nor —” and is chiefly poetic, the dictionary says.

The earliest Oxford example is from Scotland, and the use is official rather than poetic:

“Nor ȝitt [yet] at the Sowth Loch nor yitt [yet] the North Loch.” (The phrase “nor yet” here means “and also not.” This passage, dated 1499-1500, was published in 1869 in Extracts From the Records of the Burgh of Edinburgh.)

All of the dictionary’s subsequent examples are from poetry or drama. Here’s a sampling, century by century.

1558: “Mischief close in keele doth growe, / Nor might of men can helpe, nor water floodes that on they throwe.” (From Thomas Phaer’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid.)

1697: “Nor Bits nor Bridles can his Rage restrain.” (From John Dryden’s translation of Virgil’s Georgics.)

1726: “Now let our compact made / Be nor by signal nor by word betray’d.” (From Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey.)

1800: “Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken.” (From The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.)

1913: “Nor God nor Daemon can undo the done, / Unsight the seen.” (From Thomas Hardy’s poem “To Meet, or Otherwise.”)

The most recent OED example is from Untitled Subjects (1969), a collection of poems by Richard Howard: “your only troth was plighted to Lady Laudanum, / to whom nor gout nor Paris could make you untrue.”

In a 2017 post, we discussed the use of the adverbs “neither” and “either” to introduce a series of more than two items, as in these examples from Shakespeare:

“You know neither me, yourselves nor any thing” (Coriolanus, c. 1605-08) … “Thou hast neither heate, affection, limbe, nor beautie” (Measure for Measure, c. 1604) … “They say there is divinity in odd numbers, either in nativity, chance, or death” (The Merry Wives of Windsor, c. 1597).

As we remarked in 2017, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language says that “neither” and “either” can be used “in multiple as well as the more common binary coordination.”

There’s a similar explanation in the OED. It says that “following a word, phrase, or clause which is negated with neither,” the conjunction “nor” is “used before the second or further of two or more alternatives, normally to negate each.”

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