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.

  • 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
    Commented Jul 3, 2016 at 18:54
  • 2
    In this sort of context no is a quantifier, not a negating adverb: it is equivalent to adjectival "zero". Commented Jul 3, 2016 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
    Commented Jul 4, 2016 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
    Commented Jul 12, 2016 at 2:11

2 Answers 2


"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.

  • 17
    I think this is technically called ellipsis, not contraction.
    – Brandin
    Commented Jul 3, 2016 at 19:11
  • 1
    @Brandin Thanks - I wasn't trying to use a technical term: just a description that the user might understand
    – TrevorD
    Commented Jul 3, 2016 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
    Commented Jul 4, 2016 at 5:42
  • 1
    @Mari-LouA Thanks for your support & comments - much appreciated. Comment to you & NVZ follows (can only include one 'addressee per comment!).
    – TrevorD
    Commented Jul 4, 2016 at 13:31
  • 1
    Perhaps it would be better to say "shortening" than "contraction", to avoid confusion with the technical meaning, then? Commented Jul 5, 2016 at 13:12

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
    Commented Jul 3, 2016 at 20:12
  • 6
    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"). Commented Jul 4, 2016 at 5:28
  • 1
    @TrevorD There's a character entity / named character reference in HTML … (for "horizontal ellipsis", as opposed to the rather more obscure "vertical ellipsis").
    – IMSoP
    Commented Jul 5, 2016 at 13:39
  • 1
    Ellipsis isn't used a whole lot in syntax, actually. One refers to the kind of thing that's missing, or the variety of missingness that it has. See, for instance, "Deletion rules" on pages 6-9 of this list of English syntactic rules. Commented Aug 22, 2016 at 20:20
  • 1
    @JohnLawler thank you, sir. So you're a real professor. We're lucky to have you! So is my answer blatantly incorrect here?
    – NVZ
    Commented Aug 23, 2016 at 3:08

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .