Distrust naturally creates distrust, and by nothing is good-will and kind conduct more speedily changed than by invidious jealousies and uncandid imputations, whether expressed or implied.

(The Federalist Papers : No. 5)

what does by nothing is good-will mean? and what does the whole sentence mean?


Consider this analogue:

Standard subject-verb-object word order:

A swarm of locusts destroys crops more speedily than any other creature.

Standard order but with Nothing made the subject to emphasize how singular a swarm of locusts is in its ability to destroy crops:

Nothing destroys crops more speedily than a swarm of locusts.

Now that emphatic form recast in the passive voice:

By nothing are crops more speedily destroyed than by a swarm of locusts.

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  • But why in this sentence they use nothing "is" good-will and kind conduct more speedily changed than... ,why not use "are" good-will and kind conduct? – Bell Apinya Aug 26 '18 at 13:10
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    @Bell Apinya: Good question. When a speaker is thinking of two things as so closely connected that they can be understood as inseparable, as one concept or thing, really, then the grammatical number will often be singular (is) even though the grammatical subject is plural (good will and kind conduct). Outdoors, paint and varnish is subjected to the effects of harsh weather. What the speaker has in mind is the idea "a brushed-on or sprayed on protective coating". – Tᴚoɯɐuo Aug 26 '18 at 13:15
  • Is it a common literary writing? – dan Aug 26 '18 at 13:18
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    @dan: Such disagreement in grammatical number appears more often in literary writing that seeks to reflect natural speech patterns than it does in carefully edited prose of an expository nature that seeks to present information and data as clearly as possible. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Aug 26 '18 at 13:21
  • @Tᴚoɯɐuo I am also wondering what would be the difference if I write: "Crops are more speedily destroyed by nothing than by a swarm of locusts."? I thought that is the normal sentence order. – dan Aug 26 '18 at 14:43

"BY NOTHING IS good-will and kind conduct more speedily changed" means "good-will and kind conduct ARE NOT more speedily changed".

The following mean the same thing:

Nothing will change good people into bad people as quickly as doing bad things to them.

The fastest way to change good people into bad people is by doing bad things to them.

People who do good things will be changed most quickly into people who do bad things by having bad things done to them.

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