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When I want to clarify something and I say for example "Dogs, not cats.", I automatically want to write/say 'not' even though 'cats' is a noun, and for nouns one uses 'no'. But I'm quite sure this isn't the case here and it would sound really wrong. Could somebody explain the rule behind it? Surely, there must be one.

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  • It's used as an adverb to negate the words that follow it: "used to give the next word or group of words a negative meaning: I like most vegetables but not cabbage" – V0ight Jul 3 '16 at 18:54
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    In this sort of context no is a quantifier, not a negating adverb: it is equivalent to adjectival "zero". – StoneyB Jul 3 '16 at 20:11
  • @NVZ It seems to me that the original Q & my answer are more appropriate to ELL, but that your more technical answer is probably more appropriate to EL&U. Accordingly I have raised this question in Meta. Somehow I doubt whether anything can/will happen, but it occurs to me that (depending on your thoughts) I could post a new Q on EL&U for you to copy/paste/whatever your answer to. Any thoughts? – TrevorD Jul 4 '16 at 16:04
  • @StoneyB Heroes, not slackers, write fascinating posts as answers, not comments. :) It feels more like a negated appositive than a coordinating conjunction to me, but don't let me bias you. – tchrist Jul 12 '16 at 2:11
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"Dogs, not cats"

is not a sentence: it is a contraction of a sentence. A fuller sentence would be (for example):

"I mean dogs, not cats."

That, in turn is a contraction of:

"I mean dogs; I do not mean cats."

Hence the "not" comes from association with the omitted verb.

The technical term for this is ellipsis; see NVZ's answer.

P.S. In the above answer, I have used the word 'contraction' in its normal, every-day usage to mean making "something … smaller or shorter" (see Cambridge Dictionaries Online). It does not refer to the specific linguistic meaning of 'contraction' cited by NVZ.

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    I think this is technically called ellipsis, not contraction. – Brandin Jul 3 '16 at 19:11
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    @Brandin Thanks - I wasn't trying to use a technical term: just a description that the user might understand – TrevorD Jul 3 '16 at 23:01
  • @TrevorD: In that case you should still use the technical term so people can look it up. Just write something like "That's called an ellipsis". – Nova Jul 4 '16 at 5:42
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    @Mari-LouA Thanks for your support & comments - much appreciated. Comment to you & NVZ follows (can only include one 'addressee per comment!). – TrevorD Jul 4 '16 at 13:31
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    Perhaps it would be better to say "shortening" than "contraction", to avoid confusion with the technical meaning, then? – Henning Makholm Jul 5 '16 at 13:12
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Ellipsis (linguistics) — Wikipedia

It refers to the omission from a clause of one or more words that are nevertheless understood in the context of the remaining elements.

There are numerous distinct types of ellipsis acknowledged in theoretical syntax. Common examples from Wikipedia:

  • Gapping: John can play the guitar, and Mary (can play) the violin.
  • Stripping: John can play the guitar, and Mary (can play the guitar), too.
  • Verb Phrase ellipsis: John can play the guitar; Mary can (play the guitar), too.
  • Pseudogapping: They have been eating the apples more than they have (been eating) the oranges.
  • Answer fragment: Q: Who has been hiding the truth? A: Billy (has been hiding the truth).
  • Sluicing: John can play something, but I don’t know what (he can play).
  • Nominal ellipsis: The first train and the second (train) have arrived.
  • Comparative deletion: She ordered more beer than we could drink (beer).
  • Null complement anaphora: They told Bill to help, but he refused (to help).

Your example is explained by TrevorD:

"(I mean) dogs; (I do) not (mean) cats."

For further reading, check out "Ellipsis" on Cambridge Dictionary, cited by TrevorD

  • I thought ellipsis were the visible indication of omitted words, so thanks for enlightening me. – Mr Lister Jul 3 '16 at 20:12
  • I'm not sure what you thought it was. Please look up definition of ellipsis in a dictionary. It has another definition a set of dots (…) – NVZ Jul 3 '16 at 23:10
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    Just to confuse matters: if I ask a grocer, "Do you have (any) oranges?" he might reasonably respond "Apples, no oranges" (We have (some) apples; we have no oranges") or "Apples, not oranges" (We have apples; we do not have (any) oranges"). – Scott Jul 4 '16 at 5:28
  • @NVZ Altho' Oxford defines ellipsis (second meaning) as "a set of dots", Cambridge more correctly defines it as "three dots ...". Even more precisely, I understand it to be a single character displaying 3 dots &mdash and not 3 separate dots in a row. Personally, I frequently use the single ellipsis character in MS Word, where it can be produced by 'Ctrl+Alt+.' ('Ctrl+Alt+dot'). – TrevorD Jul 4 '16 at 14:07
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    @TrevorD There's a character entity / named character reference in HTML … (for "horizontal ellipsis", as opposed to the rather more obscure "vertical ellipsis"). – IMSoP Jul 5 '16 at 13:39

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