Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Not Once But Twice

Posted by Neal on June 27, 2011

I was reading a column by Charles Krauthammer yesterday, and read this sentence:

Not once but twice (Afghanistan and then Iraq) did Bush seek and receive congressional authorization, as his father did for the Gulf War.

One peculiarity of English syntax is that the same subject-auxiliary inversion that we associate with questions (e.g. What will you say? instead of *What you will say?) is also mandatory in sentences beginning with a negative adverb, or a fronted negative quantifier. For example:

  • Not only should you say thanks in person; you should also send a thank-you note.
  • Never have I been so insulted!
  • Not once has she said hi to me.
  • Not a drop did he touch.

It also happens with what CGEL calls approximate negators, like these:

  • Rarely/seldom do they see the light of day.
  • Little does he know that…
  • Scarcely a bite did he swallow.

And also with adverbs or quantifiers that emphasize the limitation of some action:

  • Only then will we grant you permission.
  • Only seven seeds did she eat.

Now, back to Krauthammer’s sentence. The adverb phrase not once is interesting. Taken literally, it could refer to a number of times less than one (i.e. zero), or greater than one. In practice, however, it always means “zero times, never”; in other words, it’s understood as “not even once.” As such, it triggers the inversion I’ve been talking about. So if the sentence had started off with not once, without the but twice

Not once did Bush seek and receive congressional authorization.

–it would have been grammatical (although false).

What about the phrase not once but twice? That’s not a negative adverbial. Krauthammer’s not saying George W. Bush never asked for congressional authorization for a war; he’s saying Bush did it twice. For that reason, I wouldn’t expect the inversion. Also, there’s a syntactic difference between not once and not once but twice that shows how not once but twice patterns with ordinary adverbs, and not with negative ones: Of the two, only not once but twice can go at the end of a sentence:

*Bush sought congressional authorization {not once, not, never}. [Although at no time does work.]
Bush sought congressional authorization {not once but twice, sometimes, many times}.

So that’s why Not once did Bush seek congressional authorization sounds fine to me, but Not once but twice did Bush seek congressional authorization is surprising. However, I did some Googling, and found some other examples of not once but twice followed by an inverted subject and auxiliary:

  • NOT ONCE BUT TWICE did gold demonstrate a classic failure (link)
  • Indeed, not once, but twice did my gaze hold too high for my feet to follow safe motions, and a trip or two resulted. (link)

  • Not once, but twice did the coaster gods have it out for him. (<a href="link)
  • Not once but twice did Rageh Al-Murisi try to get into the cockpit while the plane descended for a landing while shouting Allahu Akbar. (link)

  • Not once, but twice did he come out into the crowd to play…. (link)
  • Not once, but twice was Kobe Bryant publicly asked for a comment regarding Mike Brown’s hire as Lakers coach. (link)
  • Not once but twice have you linked to a @joshgarrels interview that does not (yet) exist. (link)
  • Not once but twice was Robert Evans picked, seemingly off the street by Norma Shearer and Darryl Zanuck no less, to act in blockbuster movies. (link)
  • Not once but twice will it send its arrows. (link)

Searching for examples of not once but twice without inversion was more difficult, since you don’t know how long the subject NP might be. On the Corpus of Contemporary English, I tried searching for not once but twice followed by a proper noun, or just the word the. No results. If you find such a sentence, i.e. something like

Not once but twice, Bush sought and received congressional authorization.

please tell us about it in the comments. Also, how do the examples of not once but twice with inversion sound to you?

10 Responses to “Not Once But Twice”

  1. Ben Zimmer said

    Not once, but twice, Bernie Williams has said he feels as if he is in the World Series in March while playing for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic.

    Not once, but twice, the Yankees were down and heading out, first when a mental gaffe gave the Red Sox two runs in the fourth, and such charity clearly is not the most proper virtue when Pedro Martinez is the opposing pitcher.

    Not once, but twice, winters got so cold that Leonardtown residents put out a statewide call for help because supply ships couldn’t get to the wharf.

    • Neal said

      Nice examples. Thanks! I think I got so busy with searches like “not once but twice do|does|did|am|are|is|was|were|had|have” that I forgot about just searching for “not once but twice” and seeing what came up.

  2. Karl said

    All these examples sound like solid English prose to me. My snap judgment is that this is the optional, and somewhat formal, inversion after a fronted adverbial (e.g., “Slowly did he approach.”) rather than mandatory inversion after a negative.

    Examples of ADV CC ADV AUX SUBJ aren’t hard to find. Google books turns up a reasonable number of results for “slowly but surely did…”, e.g.:

    Slowly, but surely, did I descend into the slough of scepticism.

    …and slowly but surely did she begin to recover

    Thus slowly but surely did the great work advance beneath his hand

    • Neal said

      You’re right that positive adverbs can go with subj-inversion, but only in what strikes you as a formal register, but what I’d call poetic or literary. Your idea of searching for ADV CC ADV AUX is good. I’ll try that on some of the BYU corpora and see what happens.

  3. The not once but twice followed by inversion sounds wrong unless it’s biblical: Not once but twice did God smite…

    I would have expected the sentence you offered: “Not once did Bush seek and receive congressional authorization.”

    In my quick search, the vast majority of these phrases occur at the end of sentences.

    Here’s one without the inversion at the beginning (middle of final paragraph):


  4. Ran said

    > Also, how do the examples of not once but twice with inversion sound to you?

    It sounds perfect to me.

    Overall, I think Karl has hit it on the nose, with the extra wrinkle that even aside from negatives and approximate negators, some adverbials seem have a greater tendency to trigger inversion than others. “Slowly did she go” sounds poetic or literary to me, as to you, Neal, but “Slowly but surely did she go” sounds merely formal to me.

  5. Erik Zyman Carrasco said

    “Also, how do the examples of not once but twice with inversion sound to you?”

    Deviant (*), except in the already mentioned register that licenses inversion with positive adverbials, which, like NW, I’d describe as poetic or literary, not merely formal.

  6. Alex said

    Putting “not once” at the end of a sentence sounds normal to me:

    He asked me not once!
    I told him every day, but he agreed not once!

    It’s certainly emphatic. Is it wrong though?

  7. Nevermind the “not once but twice” issue. This whole issue of negative subject-auxiliary inversion is interesting! Do you know of any research that has been done on this?

    What is the syntactic motivation behind it? I mean, look at the regular forms:

    Not only should you say thanks in person, you should also send a thank-you note. <– You should not only say thanks in person, you should also send a thank-you note.
    Never have I been so insulted! <– I have never been so insulted!
    Not once has she said hi to me. <– She has not once said hi to me.
    Not a drop did he touch. <– He did not touch a drop.

    Interestingly, I’m iffy about the ones that have to split the negative from the object (like that last one)—they get a ‘??’ from me.

    And I think the sentences that include the expletive ‘do’ are especially useful in determining the structure of the sentences:

    Rarely/seldom do they see the light of day. <– They rarely/seldom see the light of day.

    Another interesting point is the fact that the T->C movement in questions is thought to be modified by the need to check a [+Q] feature. I think it’s clear that there is no [+Q] feature in play here.

    I’ve looked at subject-aux inversion in another context before—namely, instances where it doesn’t occur in questions (where it would otherwise be expected to):

  8. The Ridger said

    For me, a bare “Not once did he” is fine, but so is “not once but” – the immediately following but keys the meaning change. (In speaking the intonation would be different too.) If the “but” is postponed to the end the sentence becomes a giant garden path.

    The polysemy of “not once” (meaning “more than once / never”) is a constant problem for my Russian students, too. Russian has two slightly different forms, не раз ne raz ни разу ni razu, but the students constantly confuse ни разу = not even once and не раз = not just once.

    Even more, I pity the poor Russians who look up “not once” and get “ни разу; неоднократно; много раз; никогда; не раз” (not [even] once; not just one time; many time; never; repeatedly”

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