I ask not about the meaning, but about its derivation:

no sooner F than S {phrases} = [Please check my additions of F and S
1. Used to convey that the second event S mentioned happens immediately after the first F:

Please explain how soon (on the same ODO page) effects/implies/induces the above meaning?

soon {adverb} = 2. Used to indicate one’s preference in a particular matter:

My guess: 3. 'I sooner breakfasted than lunched' => 4. I breakfasted before lunching.
Does 4 already mean 1? So why must 'no' precede 'sooner'? What would happen if I omitted no?

  • Obiter dictum: I was trying to complete question 3 when I lighted upon this issue. – Greek - Area 51 Proposal Jan 16 '15 at 3:01
  • 2
    In this case, you want sense 1.1 of soon (early), not sense 2. Sooner here means earlier. As in Ben Kovitz's answer, this expresses that F did not happen earlier than S. Since context will usually make it clear that F also did not happen later than S, the implication is that they happened at (almost) the same time. – Nate Eldredge Jan 16 '15 at 6:49

It’s a figure of speech. It’s a slight exaggeration for emphasis.

Let’s look at this example:

They had no sooner eaten dinner than the ceiling crashed onto the dining table.

That literally means:

They finished eating dinner no earlier than the ceiling crashed onto the table.

In other words, there was no time delay between the end of the dinner and the crash of the ceiling.

Really, there probably was some slight delay, or they wouldn’t have gotten away from the table in time. Someone might even say “no sooner than” if there was a delay of five or ten minutes. The exaggerated phrasing just means “Whew! That sure was close!”

You could argue that the idiom is also an understatement, because if they finished eating dinner “no sooner than” the ceiling crashed, the ceiling could have crashed a month, a year, or a century before they even started eating dinner, allowing plenty of time for repairs. People don’t hear it that way, though. I think this explains the peculiar pair of tenses in the idiom. The perfect tense emphasizes the time interval that contains eating dinner, and since it’s past perfect, the end of that time interval is considered in relation to “the ceiling crashed”, which is expressed in the simple past tense. “No sooner than” connects them, saying that the time interval for eating dinner ended exactly when the ceiling crashed.

Another example of the same figure of speech is:

No sooner said than done.

This literally means, “There is no time delay between your giving the order and the order being accomplished.” Of course that can’t literally be true, since no one can carry out orders instantaneously. The figurative meaning is just that there will be a very short time between giving the order and accomplishing it.

  • Thank you, but I'm confused. If They finished eating dinner no earlier than the ceiling crashed onto the table, then how is it possible that the ceiling could have crashed a month, a year, or a century *before* they even started eating dinner ? Or are you saying that no sooner F than S really means F happened immediately before S, and excludes the possibility that F occurs after S? – Greek - Area 51 Proposal Feb 11 '15 at 21:05
  • Will you please to respond in your answer, and not as a comment? – Greek - Area 51 Proposal Feb 11 '15 at 21:05
  • @LawArea51Proposal-Commit I'm worried that explaining this in the answer will make it even more confusing. I'll try in the following comment and we'll see what I learn about how to explain this. Spelling this out clearly and precisely is quite hard! Note that because of the perfect aspect (explained above), "No sooner had F than S" does not mean exactly the same as "F did not happen earlier than S". – Ben Kovitz Feb 12 '15 at 2:29
  • @LawArea51Proposal-Commit Suppose they finished dinner at 9:00 p.m. and the ceiling crashed at 9:00 p.m. Then finishing dinner did not happen before the ceiling crashed. Now suppose ceiling crashed at 8:00 p.m. Still, finishing dinner did not happen before the ceiling crashed: finishing dinner happened after. You don't think about this possibility, though, partly because it's silly and partly because the perfect tense guides your mind away from it. – Ben Kovitz Feb 12 '15 at 2:33

The earliest recorded usage of this I can find (OED) dates back to the 14th century where it was used in the form not so soon .... that (or but) something else which makes more sense when you understand that soon comes from Old English sóna meaning 'at once' or 'immediately' rather than the rather vague way we use it today. The OED says:

As Old English sóna had the sense of ‘at once, immediately’, it did not readily admit of comparison, and no comparative or superlative forms are recorded. The appearance of these in early Middle English is due to the more extended sense which the word had by that time acquired.

The other meaning you found relating to preference is a much later usage

The use of the exact phrase (sooner.... than ...) is first recorded as a derivative of this earlier use in the 16th century.

Hope that helps

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