dogs, not cats -> why 'not'?



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.


Posted 2016-07-03T18:23:51.477

Reputation: 407

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"

– None – 2016-07-03T18:54:29.660

2In this sort of context no is a quantifier, not a negating adverb: it is equivalent to adjectival "zero". – StoneyB on hiatus – 2016-07-03T20:11:05.967

@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 – 2016-07-04T16:04:03.457

@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 – 2016-07-12T02:11:11.107



"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.


Posted 2016-07-03T18:23:51.477

Reputation: 736

17I think this is technically called ellipsis, not contraction. – Brandin – 2016-07-03T19:11:56.283

1@Brandin Thanks - I wasn't trying to use a technical term: just a description that the user might understand – TrevorD – 2016-07-03T23:01:40.137

@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". – None – 2016-07-04T05:42:51.247

@NVZ I think that edit is well out of order. People can see for themselves that your answer, which is highly upvoted and well written, offers a more technical term. – Mari-Lou A – 2016-07-04T06:37:25.680

@Mari-LouA I think, if anything, I've actually improved this answer. Why do you think otherwise? – NVZ – 2016-07-04T06:38:34.487

@Mari-LouA if you go through both answers together, you'll see how I've connected them (both). – NVZ – 2016-07-04T06:42:39.360

@NVZ OMG migrated. What a shame! I was about to say that most likely TrevorD chose the expression contracted on purpose, knowing Trevor's track record rather well, I'm sure he would have been the first to have edited his answer if he thought it was imprecise. Anyway, you're both grownups, and I won't meddle any further. – Mari-Lou A – 2016-07-04T06:49:30.577

1@Mari-LouA Thanks for your support & comments - much appreciated. Comment to you & NVZ follows (can only include one 'addressee per comment!). – TrevorD – 2016-07-04T13:31:10.650

@NVZ & Mari-LouA Following your exchange of messages & for the record: I used the word 'contraction' intentionally because I was trying to explain the issue in non-technical terms and in a manner that I hoped would be easy for OP to understand, as already explained in my comment to Brandin. (Additionally, I am not fully conversant with all the technical terminology of grammar, and would rather avoid using specific terminology than use it wrongly (as I have done on occasions!).) cont'd ... – TrevorD – 2016-07-04T13:39:52.277

... cont'd I had previously considered amending my answer in the light of Brandin's comment, but chose not to, both because @Brandin expressed slight doubt ("I think ...") and because NVZ's answer already explained the full terminology in much more detail. I felt it inappropriate to pick out just the one term when the full technical terminology was explained in context in NVZ's answer. So, in conclusion, I agree with Mari-LouA, but have no major objection to the amendment made by NVZ & will let it stand. – TrevorD – 2016-07-04T13:48:49.267

@TrevorD Thing is, there's already a different definition for "contraction" in linguistics. See

– NVZ – 2016-07-04T14:17:19.180

@NVZ Added P.S. to answer. Also, I've always understood the use of Wikipedia as a reference for an answer in ELU to be deprecated because it is not necessarily a reliable source, being subject to abuse & to frequent changes. – TrevorD – 2016-07-04T14:38:24.990

@TrevorD Since this is for English language learners, how about something like Contraction - Learner's Dictionary. According to that entry: The word “don't” is a contraction of “do not.”. It doesn't mean your usage is wrong per se, but it is a bit unusual for this instance. By the way, the cited example in that dictionary entry is the everyday usage. Although contraction is also a technical term, it is also commonplace enough.

– Brandin – 2016-07-04T14:46:58.277

@Brandin Thanks. Have included a different dictionary reference (because I prefer to use British ones! :-) ) – TrevorD – 2016-07-04T15:01:30.937

1Perhaps it would be better to say "shortening" than "contraction", to avoid confusion with the technical meaning, then? – hmakholm left over Monica – 2016-07-05T13:12:01.387

@HenningMakholm Thank you - but IMHO the answer's clear as it stands; I've already amended it in relation to past comments; it's been accepted; and has numerous upvotes. I'm not inclined to change it now. – TrevorD – 2016-07-05T13:19:00.003


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


Posted 2016-07-03T18:23:51.477

Reputation: 472

I thought ellipsis were the visible indication of omitted words, so thanks for enlightening me. – Mr Lister – 2016-07-03T20:12:13.203

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 – 2016-07-03T23:10:35.570

6Just 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 – 2016-07-04T05:28:44.800

@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 – 2016-07-04T14:07:00.587

@TrevorD I agree. I have read your comments. In my previous comment, I have used the set of three dots. (…) :) – NVZ – 2016-07-04T14:14:39.387

@NVZ How do you reproduce the actual ellipsis character in comments & answers on this board, which (I assume) is the same as asking how do you produce it in HTML? – TrevorD – 2016-07-04T14:18:29.577

@TrevorD … It won't work on comments here. – NVZ – 2016-07-04T14:26:30.023

@NVZ Thanks. I note that Cambridge Dictionary - Grammar refers to 'Textual ellipsis' & 'Situational ellipsis'. I assume that's a different level of categorisation than what you have used?

– TrevorD – 2016-07-04T14:46:30.477

@TrevorD That's interesting. I'll take a look. – NVZ – 2016-07-04T14:49:31.477


@TrevorD There's a character entity / named character reference in HTML … (for "horizontal ellipsis", as opposed to the rather more obscure "vertical ellipsis").

– IMSoP – 2016-07-05T13:39:08.750

@IMSoP testing … did it work? On my phone it didn't. – NVZ – 2016-07-05T14:51:18.633

@NVZ Formatting for comments on StackExchange uses a slightly different dialect / configuration of MarkDown than formatting for questions and answers; I think chat may be different again. – IMSoP – 2016-07-05T15:02:41.723

@NVZ I used it in an Answer earlier, and it worked. You said to me earlier that … doesn't work on Comments, so presumably the same applies to … – TrevorD – 2016-07-05T17:44:28.510

"She ordered more beer than we could drink (beer)." This sounds wrong as the full sentence. I'd say it's "She ordered more beer than (the amount) we could drink." – bjb568 – 2016-07-07T13:34:30.423

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. – John Lawler – 2016-08-22T20:20:19.987

@JohnLawler thank you, sir. So you're a real professor. We're lucky to have you! So is my answer blatantly incorrect here? – NVZ – 2016-08-23T03:08:23.033