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While it would seem logically that the popular expression "ни рыба ни мясо"--meaning roughly "neither here nor there"--should have both nouns in genitive, a quick Google search reveals that the more serious sources--including A Dictionary of Russian Idioms and Colloquialisms--spell it as such, with both nouns in nominative.

Why is this? Is there any reason that the nouns are in nominative? Is this standard following "ни"?

  • 1
    Рыба is nominative too. Its genitive would be рыбы. – Nikolay Ershov May 1 '15 at 17:42
2

A part of the question is still unanswered, so...

The particle ни give us negative meaning:

      ни одной ошибки.
        no mistakes      (had been made)

The double conjunction ни ... ни:

                       ни ... ни       
                    neither ... nor

       число 1 не считается ни простым, ни составным 
  the number 1 is not considered either prime or composite 

Note: In the sentence where the particle не renders negative meaning of the verb, words with the particle ни should be followed by the particle не:

  One thing he did make his mind up about was not to bother to get up
  very early and cook everybody else's wretched breakfast. 

  Единственное, что он твёрдо решил, — ни в коем случае не вставать 
  ни свет ни заря, чтобы накормить всех этих дармоедов.      

                                         [J. R. R. Tolkien. The Hobbit] 

Should we have both nouns in genitive?

Ни рыба ни мясо is a fixed phrase. It may used as a non breaking unit in a sentence:

  они   ни то ни сё,  ни рыба ни мясо. 
 └───┘ └───────────┘ └───────────────┘
                                                            [Ростопчин. (1812)]

  что мы такое? ни рыба ни мясо,  ни Европа ни Азия. 
               └───────────────┘ └─────────────────┘
                                                  [Бестужев-Марлинский. (1833)]

The structure Он (is) ни рыба ни мясо will require nominative case between the two units (that means no link with inflection). Note: A comma is omitted.

In contrast, there is an ordinary sentence with its ordinary units:

 
  Там вообще жизнь духовная, там не нужны ни рыба, ни мясо, ни хлеб, ни вода.
                                         └───────┘└───────┘└───────┘└───────┘
                                                   [Протоиерей Д.Смирнов. (1984-1989)]


  Он не ел ни рыбы, ни мяса. 
          └───────┘└───────┘                                
                In "ни мяса" we have literally "(there is) no (of a) meat"

  В городе нет (кого?чего?) ни хлеба, ни рыбы, ни мяса.              Родительный/Gen
                           └────────┘└───────┘└───────┘     
  Он не любил (кого?что?) ни хлеб, ни рыбу, ни мясо.                 Винительный/Accu
                         └───────┘└───────┘└───────┘                 
  Он не был рад (кому?чему?) ни хлебу, ни рыбе, ни мясу.             Дательный/Dat   
                            └────────┘└───────┘└───────┘              
  Это животное не кормят (кем?чем?) ни хлебом, ни рыбой, ни мясом.   Творит./Instr
                                   └─────────┘└────────┘└────────┘  
                         

It is mere coincidence that a fixed phrase appear very similar to a sequence of objects of an action (direct objects).

you may be interested to know
Usage example 1
Usage example 2

| improve this answer | |
  • OK, now I am puzzled. I gathered from the other answers to this question that 'ни' tends to be followed by nominative--at least in the case of the expressions in question ("ни рыба, ни мясо"/"ни то ни сё"). (You also give it as such in "ни свет ни заря.") But then, in "ни одной ошибки," you have it followed by genitive. So which is it? Or does it go both ways? – SAH May 11 '15 at 14:36
  • ...Or does it take nominative when used in the double construction meaning "neither/nor", but genitive when used alone (i.e. "ни одной ошибки")? Or perhaps is ""ни одной" an exceptional fixed construction? – SAH May 11 '15 at 14:39
  • 1
    @SAH Please see my update. – Avtokod May 11 '15 at 19:34
  • Thank you so much for your time and care making this answer. I think I can summarize the principles in the following way (let me know if it's correct): "ni ryba ni myaso" is a noun phrase in which the "ni - ni -" structure is fixed, and the "ryba" and "myaso" decline to suit the function of the noun phrase in the sentence. (That is, they will both become accusative if the "ni ryba ni myaso" is a direct object, or they will both become instrumental if "ni ryba ni myaso" functions as an indirect object. So far correct? – SAH May 22 '15 at 4:13
  • 1
    @SAH , Thanks for the lattermost question (why not in genitive) that make me wondering :) A simple answer is: нужны is the short form of an ADJ нужный, while (можно, нужно, стало, рано, мало, ...) are the predicative that required genitive. Для дружбы не нужно ни румян, ни бриллиянтов. [Н.Брусилов. Легковерие и хитрость (1806)] But this is not a completed story. – Avtokod May 25 '15 at 21:45
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In this idiom, both nouns should be in the Nominative case, ни рыба, ни мясо, no other way. The way you thought it was right, "ни рыба ни мяса", only "мяса" is in the Genitive case, "рыба" is Nominative. Anyway, it is wrong.

And the rough meaning of that idiom is 'something senseless, useless; a person without any established point of view; an inactive, passive person'.

UPD. Here are some examples of how this expression is used. The best English translation is 'neither fish nor fowl', it is usually used as a predicatve or as an apposition.

Он ни мужик, ни барин, ни рыба, ни мясо... А. П. Чехов. Неприятность, (1888)

"He is neither a peasant nor gentleman, neither fish nor fowl."

Потому что я ни рыба ни мясо. Геннадий Алексеев. Зеленые берега (1983-1984)

"Because I am neither fish nor fowl."

Генерала Веймарна мы увольняем, он ни рыба ни мясо. В. Я. Шишков. Емельян Пугачев. Книга первая. Ч. 3 (1934-1939)

"We shall discharge General Veymarn, he is neither fish nor fowl."

This expression is the first part of a longer idiom, ни рыба ни мясо, ни кафтан ни ряса, literary "neither fish nor meat, neither caftan nor cassock." There is also a synonymic expression ни то ни сё, literary "neither that nor this", it is used in the same way.

| improve this answer | |
  • 2
    I don't think you need the comma, as it's an idiom – jwalker May 1 '15 at 18:02
  • 2
    @jwalker - Different dictionaries have it differently, some with the comma and some without it. For example, Dahl in his dictionary of proverbs does have a comma there, Anton Chekhov has the comma. Still, most modern writers don't have it, so I think it's up to you whether to use it or not. – Yellow Sky May 1 '15 at 18:15
  • Also, can you give an example of how this expression is used? Is it a noun? Similar to "ерунда"? – SAH May 1 '15 at 18:43
  • @SAH - I updated my answer. – Yellow Sky May 1 '15 at 20:04
  • @SAH Ни рыба ни мясо = You can't use it as you can some a certain one or thing – Avtokod May 1 '15 at 20:09
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Ни рыба ни мясо = It is neither fish nor meat. This is a borderline thing, impossible to classify.

Ни рыбы ни мяса = There is neither fish nor meat. Well, we do not have the food.

| improve this answer | |
  • What is the basis for the different grammatical choices in these two expressions? Why does one use genitive and the other, nominative? – SAH May 11 '15 at 14:41
  • 1
    @SAH the the later is contraction of "Нет ни рыбы, ни мяса". "There is nothing of fish or meat" – Anixx May 11 '15 at 14:44

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