Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Negating should in questions

Part III of our dissection of the most recent Grammatically Speaking column brings us to the question: "what's wrong with should not they have permission."

Richard Firsten opines, "actually, there is nothing ungrammatical with the question Should not they have permission . . . ?, but it's certainly very uncommon and probably never heard or even written anymore. A very long time ago this construction was sometimes used."

It appears then that in Firsten's reckoning, anything that was once grammatical in English is always grammatical in English. There are probably some who believe him, but to them, I say, "Buton ğam anum, ğæt ğæt Leden and ğæt Englisc nabbağ na ane wisan on ğære spræce fandunge."

Personally, I'd say it sounds ungrammatical. There are no instances of the construction in the BNC and but a single example in the COCA:
why should not they manage their own schools, Love asked?
But if shouldn't is simply a contraction of should not, as Firsten says it is, then what's the problem. The problem is that shouldn't is NOT simply a contraction, but an actual negative form. Most auxiliary verbs have negative forms: isn't, wasn't, won't, mustn't, haven't, didn't, etc. But if this were a mere contraction, it wouldn't be limited to auxiliary verbs. Contracted is, for example, can but stuck onto anything at all (in speech at least):

  • my name's Brett (noun)
  • his's better than yours (possessive pronoun)
  • the place we went to's not there anymore (preposition)
  • the bag that's too big's lying there (adjective)
Indeed, there are times when the meaning of the negative form differs from the full form, something that's never true of real contractions. Here's a well known example:

  • You can not go to church and still be a good Christian.
  • You can't go to church and still be a good Christian.

6 comments:

Craig Russell said...

There are certain constructions where 'is' can't be contracted:

Tell me where the money is!

can't be contracted to

*Tell me where the money's!

But of course your point here is still true: contraction of 'is' isn't just limited to certain nouns.

(Just found this blog through Language Log--I like it!)

Anonymous said...

Hi. Nice blog. Another case where contractions are not equivalent to their expansions is question tags, e.g.:

Bob's your uncle, is not he?
You ate the whole cake, did not you?
You would have liked it, would not have you?
I spelled it wrong, did not I?

Lou Hevly said...

I would say that "shouldn't" is indeed a contraction of "should not", but that the reason "Should not they have permission" sounds ungrammatical is that it doesn't follow the normal word order for a question, which is "auxiliar + subject [+ adverb] + verb".
"Shouldn't they have permission" sounds fine (auxiliars contracted with "not" still count as auxiliars).
"Should they not have permission" is a bit formal, but still sounds acceptable, at least in my English (born Seattle, 1949).
"Should not they have" sounds wrong because we don't construct negative questions in the order "auxiliar + adverb + subject + verb".

In fact, English has such a strong preference for beginning negative questions with auxiliars contracted with "not" that for "am", the only auxiliar that can't be so contracted, we use "aren't"!
"Am I not your friend?" = "Aren't I your friend?"
But not "Are I not your friend" and of course not "Are not I your friend".

Brett said...

Lou, A contraction is simply the word in its normal position, but phonologically reduced and linked to the previous word. That's not what you're describing.

ninjakitten said...

Huh. "Should not they have permission?" sounds perfectly grammatical to me. "Can not one go to church and still be a good Christian?" is also grammatical. In fact, there's a difference of meaning between:
* Can not one go to church and still be a good Christian?
and
* Can one not go to church and still be a good Christian?

In the former, "can not" could be replaced by "can't" without altering the meaning; in the latter, it could not. However, the choice not to use the contraction puts more emphasis on the idea that this is really a rhetorical question: of course they should have permission; of course one can be a good Christian and still go to church.

Lou Hevly said...

Hi Brett:

I'm saying that a word's being contracted alters the word order of the sentence. Sometimes, when an auxiliar is contracted with not, it's position changes. For example, "still" follows a simple auxiliar but precedes a contracted one:

1) I have still not received your letter.
subj aux adv not verb
2) I still haven't received your letter.
subj adv aux verb

Cheers,
Lou