I want to say that two people couldn't do something, can I use some other construction except "neither..nor"? The main point is not to summarise their effort and not combine the two.

  • Not James and not Shawn could do it.
  • James couldn't do it. Nor could Shawn.

Are these possible? Are there other ways?

Or is only is correct:

  • Neither James nor Shawn could do it.

What if we use "both" will they still be rendered individually or will they be rendered together?

  • Both James and Shawn couldn't do it.

All of these are correct:

  • James couldn't do it; Shawn couldn't, either.
  • James couldn't do it, and Shawn couldn't do it.
  • Neither James nor Shaun could do it.
  • James couldn't do it, nor could Shawn.
  • James couldn't do it; neither could Shaun.

On the (debatable) distinction between the last two, "nor" can act as a conjunction, but "neither" isn't generally accepted as a conjunction. So when "neither" is used, it's more conventional either to use a semicolon or to start a new sentence.

Regarding "Both James and Shaun couldn't do it", its meaning isn't entirely clear. In practice the meaning might be obvious from the context, but it's more likely that whichever meaning was meant, people would say it in a different way. For example, for the two of them combined, "James and Shaun together couldn't do it" or "James and Shaun between them couldn't do it"; for saying that neither of them could do it individually, a "neither" or "nor" expression seems preferable.


All of the following assumes that these are in the past tense rather than the subjunctive mode. In other words, we're talking about actions that failed, rather than speculation about possibilities.

Both James and Sean couldn't do it.

From this sentence, we have no idea whether James and Sean acted together or separately.

Neither James nor Shawn could do it.

From this sentence, we know that they acted separately.

James couldn't do it, nor could Sean.

They acted separately, formally, and possibly half a century ago.

James couldn't do it. Neither could Sean.

They acted separately and we've stopped sounding old-fashioned.

Not James and not Shawn could do it.

It looks grammatically possible and I understand some of the logic behind it, but...it's just...weird. I'm not sure how to interpret it and I can't imagine the circumstances that'd make it sound natural.

Were the "could" subjunctive, I might think that anyone but those two might do it.

Not even James or Sean could do it.

They acted separately, and we seem surprised that they failed.

Not even James and Sean could do it.

They acted together, and we still seem surprised.

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