The word "not" is an adverb. I am trying to clarify what it modifies.

1: Consider the sentence: "The person is not smart".

Is "not" modifying "is" or "smart"? How can I tell?

According to the Stanford Parser, the parse tree is:

    (NP (DT That) (NN person))
    (VP (VBZ is) (RB not)
      (ADJP (JJ smart)))
    (. .)))

2: Consider a second sentence: "That figure is not a person".

Is "not" modifying "a person"? If so, then "not" would be an adjective, yes?

    (NP (DT That) (NN figure))
    (VP (VBZ is) (RB not)
      (NP (DT a) (NN person)))
    (. .)))

In both cases, it looks like "not" is only modifying the verb.

  • 4
    In this S, not binds the predicate adjective smart. But calling not an adverb tells you nothing at all about it, nor what it modifies. Not is a logical Operator -- like Quantifiers and Modals -- and has immensely complex syntax and a slew of idiomatic Negative Polarity Items. Negation is not a matter of modification; there are other phenomena at work. – John Lawler Jun 5 '14 at 17:23
  • @JohnLawler: Thanks for the information. I know a little about predicate and propositional logic (1st order, 2nd order, etc.), but never thought to map "not" to that system of thinking. Do you have any references (books or papers) about how that can be done? If you answer my question (instead of commenting), I can choose your answer. – stackoverflowuser2010 Jun 6 '14 at 19:31
  • The bibliography in the Negation link above is a good start. And the logical operator link is a basic introduction to how not and its ilk map onto logic. And thanks for the offer, but this is more convenient for me; I'm not interested in SE bureaucracy. – John Lawler Jun 6 '14 at 19:35

I cannot (offhand) think of a case where an adverb directly modifies a noun, but rather modifies an adject that modifies a noun. You cannot say "the not man", but you can say "the not strong man".

Also in regards to not being an auxilary verb, it can't happen in a well-formed sentence. It easier to visualize the "is not" construction as a copular joined by the negation-adverb, which is a lot like saying "≠" (not equal to); however, since adverbs can attach to verbs or adjectives (or other adverbs) the construction "the man is not smart" could be, and probably should be connected to the predicate nominative forming [the man] [not smart], where other single adjectives like "dumb" or "uneducated" can replace the negated phrase "not smart".

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In both of your examples the "not" negates the whole sentence. They are negative propositions: they deny a particular proposition, without making positive claims. The propositions they are negating are "the person is smart" and "that figure is a person".

You could make similar sentences which do assert propositions, but they do have slightly different meanings: "the person is of average intelligence" and "that figure is nonhumaniod".

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This is a tricky one to approach on grammar grounds alone. It's a loaded phrase, a clever or euphemistic way of saying, "he's pretty damn dumb." This is idiom. It does not mean, as the words might suggest, "of perfectly normal, typical cognitive capacity."

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  • 1
    What are you talking about?" How is "not smart" more loaded or clever than "damn dumb"? – user36720 Jun 23 '14 at 15:30
  • Also it sounds like the OP picked a poor example - perhaps "not hungry" would be more straightforward. – user36720 Jun 23 '14 at 15:30
  • Why is this difficult to analyze on grammar grounds alone? – mac389 Jun 29 '14 at 19:48
  • "Not smart" is idiom. Characterizations of people's intelligence and character is much more complex (and linguistically treacherous for non-native speakers) than characterizing the color of objects, for example. The analysis of "The house is not white" is pretty straightforward. The meaning of "not smart" goes beyond syntax, in my opinion. – user8356 Sep 5 '14 at 20:02

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