I am trying to figure out what additional semantic information "both" carries when used in a sentence. Does it differ from "and"?

Take the following sentences:

Alice and Bob both ate lunch.


Alice and Bob ate lunch.

What extra is gained by the "both" in the first sentence? Do either of the sentences give a stronger or weaker implication that the activity was performed together or separately? I've been overthinking it, so I don't know what my intuition tells me anymore. My initial thought was perhaps that using "both" added a stronger implication that the activity was shared between the two rather than separate events. If the word "together" is added to the end of either sentence, I feel that it feels a bit superfluous on the first, with "both" (yet not a questionable or starred sentence), and much more natural with the second, as in "Alice and Bob ate lunch together".

Looking at a dictionary entry, it would imply that "both" is used for emphasis, but gives the examples with "both" being in an initial position, which I feel automatically gives emphasis - "Both Alice and Bob ate lunch" seems to actually have a whole different feel to it, and to me would be used more to correct an incorrect assumption. "I thought only Bob was there..." "No, both Alice AND Bob ate lunch..."

Any thoughts?

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    Both is the dual suppletive for all; i.e, both = *all two. Wherever you would say all N, if N = 2, then say both instead.
    – jlawler
    Jul 26, 2013 at 2:59
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    Yes both, in standard English refers to two, and functios mostly like all, though it can work in a special way in lists with and. Note that it's also exceedingly common in nonstandard English to be used in quantifying small lists of greater than two. It can also be used as a pronoun: Both were happy. I suppose there are many ways to classify it re parts of speech etc as it's quite versatile. Jul 26, 2013 at 4:14
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    @jlawler "the dual suppletive for all". That's one of its functions, but it has a different function too: "both A and B" (compare *"all A, B and C"). In Scandinavian languages, a different word is used in the 2 functions (e.g. Danish "både" vs "begge").
    – dainichi
    Jul 26, 2013 at 5:40
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    I would say both functions to emphasize or clarify that the two things are a definite group, for instance both undertake the action or both are affected by the action. In fact it's hard to describe without using the word both (-: Jul 26, 2013 at 7:32
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    Old joke: "Are those two married?" "Yes, both of them." Jul 26, 2013 at 7:38

1 Answer 1


Here’s what I gleaned from the relevant page in “Language Typology and Syntactic Description” (Timothy Shopen, ed.) (Volume II, Complex Constructions)

The semantic difference between normal coordination with “and” and emphatic coordination with “both…and” is that, in the latter, the separateness of the referents of the two coordinands is emphasized.

So, for example, “Both Wyoming and Wisconsin are in the USA,” emphasizes that, though both states are in the USA, logically neither or only one of the states might have been in the USA.

[I would add that emphasis on the separateness of Wyoming and Wisconsin might also be achieved by stressing "and": Wyoming AND Wisconsin are in the USA.]

The text I cite here points out that the sentence “Spanish and Portuguese are similar,” is felicitous, but the sentence “*Both Spanish and Portuguese are similar,” is infelicitous “because two things cannot be separately similar.” (The latter quote is on p. 55 of the book I mentioned above.)

These considerations apply to your examples. "Bob and Alice ate lunch," presupposes that both, one, or neither might have eaten lunch. But "Both Bob and Alice ate lunch" emphasizes the possibility that only one might have eaten lunch.

  • That's an interesting take on it, and at least helps confirm what I'm beginning to realize about "both" being emphatic and to aid in clearing up misunderstandings. Although I'm still unclear about the "separateness" aspect. I don't find that sentence to be starred for me, and a quick Google search of "they're both similar" yields over 1 million results. I feel like the book's further speculation past emphasis may not hold true for most speakers, and that there's a different feel to "and...both" vs. "both..and" as it's sentence initial in the latter.
    – V_H
    Jul 27, 2013 at 4:42
  • Remember, it's not the word "both" we're talking about, but the two-word conjunction "both...and." That should clarify things a bit. Jul 27, 2013 at 5:45

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