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A Guardian article, entitled "What are the Conservatives conserving?", includes the following sentence:

Alas, we have seen nor heard nothing for a month from test-and-trace mastermind Dido Harding, who is assumed to be living under this administration’s vast Shitness Protection Programme.

What perplexes me is the construct of we have seen nor heard nothing. There are two points of confusion:

  1. Having "nor" follow a positive statement, i.e., instead of "we have neither seen nor heard...".
  2. The potential double negative, i.e., instead of "nor heard anything".

Is this an outright error in print or does this fit axiomatic usage in the UK?

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    I think it is meant to convey in a very theatrical manner. However, your assumption is correct, ...we have neither seen nor heard anything... – Dhanishtha Ghosh Oct 16 at 16:13
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    Not "wrong", buit probably a little old-fashioned. Seems to be a fixed phrase. "I have seen nor heard nothing about books since my arrival" - Thomas Boylston Adams to John Quincy Adams 26 April 1797. "I had seen nor heard nothing more of it in the papers" - 1862 letter. Lots more 1750-1900, including an 1834 speech in the US Congress. – Michael Harvey Oct 16 at 19:50
  • Apparent, but not actual, negatives like ‘nothing’ are hard for human brains to handle so idioms like this are quite common. In technical analysis the actual logic is “we have seen and heard nothing” but that can feel odd so phrases that are technically wrong but instinctively more compelling develop. This is one of those. – jwpfox Oct 16 at 20:50
  • "But I didn't do nothing" means "I did not do anything". Its especially popular in jamaican dialects of english and in some old-fashioned english texts. Its not wrong per se, its a peculiar way of stating something. – Polygnome Oct 17 at 21:14
  • If “nor” could follow a positive phrase, you could say "I did this nor that." What remains to ask? – Robbie Goodwin Oct 18 at 0:14
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I would consider the grammar of that sentence to be simply wrong and bad. You have accurately identified the error. It probably arose during editing. The sentence could either say

Alas, we have neither seen nor heard anything for a month from test-and-trace mastermind Dido Harding...

or

Alas, we have seen and heard nothing for a month from test-and-trace mastermind Dido Harding...

There are various other correct ways to formulate this sentence, but I think the problem arose somewhere between the two options above. When I change my mind about how to say what I want to say, and edit in haste, this is the kind of mess I end up with.


Note in response to comments:

"Haven't seen nothing" might be heard in my regional dialect, or even "haven't seen nothing nor heard nothing", or maybe even "I've seen nothing nor heard nothing". But newspapers are written in the dialect taught in EFL classes, British Standard English, where nothing doesn't go with nor, and have neither does. Apparently someone once said this in that, er, exemplar of BSE grammar, the US Congress, but, unfairly, you the English Learner will not get away with it; your teacher will correct you, your IELTS assessor will mark you down, and your pedantic British colleagues will smirk.

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    Note that the Guardian has often had a very poor reputation for proof-reading, to the point that some people call it "The Grauniad", implying that they can't even be trusted to spell their own name correctly. – Canadian Yankee Oct 16 at 18:00
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    @Zanna - "wrong and bad" - neither "wrong" nor "bad". – Michael Harvey Oct 16 at 22:51
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    It sounds a little old-fashioned to me, but as Michael Harvey pointed out, there are precedents. – Old Brixtonian Oct 17 at 0:13
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    What evidence or reasoning do you have to call this sentence wrong? – curiousdannii Oct 17 at 2:38
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    @curiousdannii, @ Polygnome: It’s hard to prove a negative, but The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Huddlestone & Pullum), an exhaustive academic reference, doesn’t include this usage for nor, which is pretty good evidence that it’s not standard in modern British or American English (either formal or informal), and that any dialectal use isn’t very widespread. (Specifically, see Ch.15 §2.4.) There may well be some dialects in which this usage is still current, but this corroborates it as non-standard enough that an editing error seems the more likely explanation. – PLL Oct 17 at 22:44
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There is a problem with your example, it is wrong.

we have seen nor heard nothing.

"Nor" is used in negative phrases - especially after "neither" - to introduce the next item in a list of negatives.

"We have seen nothing" is a negative - an alternative way of saying "we haven't seen anything". But before you use "nor" to introduce the next item it must already have been negated, and "have seen" is, in isolation, positive.

The writer could have instead said:

we haven't seen or heard anything

or, an alternative using "nor" would be:

We have neither seen nor heard anything.

"Neither" makes the first item negative, so it can be joined with "nor" to the second.

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  • @curiousdannii I agree my own grammar in explaining that wasn't great, have updated. – Astralbee Oct 17 at 21:03
  • @urnonav I have updated my answer, hopefully that clarifies the point I was trying to make. – Astralbee Oct 17 at 21:03
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I would disagree with most answers here.

Some purists of the english language claim that the double negative -- as for example in I didn't do nothing is wrong and isn't proper english.

And I would agree that its at least bad style when used in formal english.

But it is valid in many dialects of english and conveys emphasis. I didn't do nothing wrong means I didn't do anything wrong, but with added emphasis. Similarly, We didn't see nothing means We saw nothing and She never danced with nobody means She didn't dance with anybody.

The quote from the Guardian can thus be read as we have seen nor heard anything, but with added emphasis.

Again, this isn't proper in formal english and some grammar purists will say its incorrect, but it is how in some dialects and groups english is spoken (and sometimes written).

User Michael Harvey writes in a comment:

Not "wrong", buit [sic] probably a little old-fashioned. Seems to be a fixed phrase. "I have seen nor heard nothing about books since my arrival" - Thomas Boylston Adams to John Quincy Adams 26 April 1797. "I had seen nor heard nothing more of it in the papers" - 1862 letter. Lots more 1750-1900, including an 1834 speech in the US Congress

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    Sorry but "I didn't do nothing wrong" does not mean "I didn't do anything wrong", but with added emphasis. It actually means "I didn't do anything wrong and by the way, my English is idiomatic, not standard." – Robbie Goodwin Oct 18 at 0:10
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    I agree that phrases like "I didn't do nothing" and "We didn't see nothing" are commonly heard in some dialects, but the phrase in the question is not like that - it says something like "we did see nor hear nothing" (that is, the sentence is not as negative as possible like your examples, rather it's just all over the place, since it has "have" instead of "haven't"). Also I agree with Robbie Goodwin's comment that "I didn't do nothing" is unlikely to be heard as more emphatic than "I didn't do anything" - rather it will mark the speaker's dialect or social class. – Zanna Oct 18 at 7:25

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