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Yes, this is the original quote from Albert Einstein.

I tend to put it this way:

The world is dangerous not because of those who do harm but because of those who look at it without doing anything.

which seems to have a more balanced structure. However, I do observe the original quote conforms to common English usage (i.e. commonly used in newspapers, books, etc.).

I feel inclined to follow the language convention rather than make it subject to my own judgement.

Any suggestions?

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Perhaps we have no trouble parsing the original sentence correctly because "The world is not dangerous" is semantically bizarre, even though it is syntactically mundane. –  Dietrich Epp Nov 27 '11 at 2:21
    
My intuitive perception of English language tells me the Einstein's original word order is less English than the one suggested by you. Not less correct, but less English. I'm not a native speaker, so I wonder if my intuition is right. P. S. And don't forget Einstein is not native English speaker either, maybe in German language that order of words makes more sense? –  Violet Giraffe Nov 27 '11 at 20:57
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4 Answers 4

up vote 7 down vote accepted

There are those who believe that not and only should always be placed as close as possible to the words which they modify. I am not of their number. It is only necessary to do so (see?) where there is a real risk of ambiguity. That is not the case with the Einstein quotation. The German original is slightly different, but there, too, the word for not immediately precedes the equivalent of dangerous.

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I actually agree with both Barrie and Bjorn in that clarity should be a priority. Personally I didn't notice the shift in the word not until Bjorn pointed it out, so obviously there was no loss of clarity in either direction for me. –  Rant Nov 26 '11 at 20:53
    
@BarrieEngland: Would you please post the German version if possible? Thanks. –  Kris Nov 27 '11 at 11:00
    
@Kris: ‘Die Welt wird nicht bedroht von den Menschen, die böse sind, sondern von denen, die das Böse zulassen.’ Where the English uses a copular verb and a subject predicate in the first part of the sentence, the German uses a passive construction. A direct translation is ‘The world is not threatened by people who are evil, but by those who permit the evil.’ I am not sure whether in the German sentence 'nicht' is possible only between 'wird' and 'bedroht', or whether 'Die Welt wird bedroht nicht von den Menschen . . .' is also possible. Perhaps a native German speaker could tell us. –  Barrie England Nov 27 '11 at 11:15
    
Thank you BarrieEngland. I agree with you that Die Welt wird bedroht nicht von ... sounds odd, though I have seen similar structure in other simpler sentences in German. –  Kris Nov 27 '11 at 11:20
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There is a shift in emphasis in your version toward a view that the world is going to be dangerous, regardless of what we do. Einstein's view seems to be that we can make the world less dangerous (by doing something about it).

Strictly speaking, the two forms are identical in meaning, and what I mean is that there is just a slight change in perspective, not a semantic difference.

For comparison, here is a purely hypothetical pair of statements, none of which have been made to my son:

  • Dad: If you clean up your room, you can go to Josh's house.
  • Mom: You can go to Josh's house, if you clean up your room.
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There is a slight difference between reading it and hearing it. The first words "The world is not dangerous because of" can be initially parsed as: "the world is not dangerous" (premise) "because of" reasons why the world is not dangerous. We then have to recast the sentence as the premise being that the world is dangerous and the reason is not that...

As a comparison I invite you to consider how we parse the sentence "The old man the boats".

To be frank, it's a bit of a quibble, but it was a large part of my psych degree. http://jos.oxfordjournals.org/content/4/2/204.extract

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I can honestly say that I didn't even notice you had changed the position of "not" until I closely inspected both sentences. So I'd say this is not an issue to worry about since it the sentence is perfectly comprehensible in both forms.

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