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"Do not you want to know who has taken it?'' cried his wife impatiently.

-Pride and Prejudice (1813)

According to one of the answers in Is "Don't you know? " the same as "Do not you know?"?, "Do not you want to know..." is "ungrammatical; you is not heavy enough to shift past not". 200 years does not seem to be that long. When did this happen?

I do not like contractions, so I would like to use "Do not you.." but all the sources say I should use "Do you not..." instead. I am just curious how "Do not you..." became incorrect within 200 years.

  • "200 years does not seem that long"? 200 years ago Napoleon became Emperor, Belgium, Greece and a bunch of other nations did not exist yet, and Britain started its Imperial Century. The US had just started out as a country. I would be surprised if in the time since then a language that spread over the world like wildfire would not have changed. – oerkelens Feb 5 '15 at 8:30
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    I can't agree that it is 'ungrammatical'. It would be a quaint way of expressing oneself today, but perfectly correct, in my view. If we are going to label such things 'ungrammatical', much of the KJV bible and Shakespeare would have to go! – WS2 Feb 5 '15 at 9:06
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    I agree with @WS2 that "Do not you want ..." sounds quaint [and possibly confusing, perhaps because we're 'primed' to expect a prohibition in a sentence beginning "Do not ..."]. However, in Lancashire at least, it's still quite normal to say "Do you not ..." rather than "Don't you ...". – David Garner Feb 5 '15 at 9:30
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Questions framed as “Does not X ...?” “Is not Y ...?” “Should not Z ...?” and the like are certainly grammatical, and to me they seem every bit as unambiguous as the corresponding forms “Does X not ...?” “Is Y not ...?” and “Should Z not ...?” Nevertheless, they are not the forms normally used in contemporary English speech or writing; and when they do appear, it tends to be in the context of someone straining to sound serious and impressive—which, unfortunately, often translates into sounding stilted. I think of this form as “Letters to the Editor English” because that section of the newspaper occasionally publishes content from writers who, being uncertain of their voice, attempt to compensate with artificially formal diction.

The phrasing seems to arise out of back formations of the contractions that a person would use in everyday speech (“doesn’t,” “Isn’t,” “shouldn’t”) into their full-dress forms (“does not,” “is not,” “should not”)—but without any adjustment in word order to reflect how people generally use those uncontracted forms.

The result is text that reads like this excerpt from the Portland association notes in Bulletin of the National Association of Credit Men (June 1916):

In the Portland weekly letter these very searching questions are asked, bearing upon the acceptance of a compromise where fraud is recognized:

Does not this compromise place a premium upon crime?

Is not this kind of compromise exactly like fining a man twenty-five dollars for stealing one hundred dollars?

Is not this similar to taking morphine to cure the colic, disregarding the cause of the trouble, and taking chances of acquiring the habit?

...

Does not every settlement like this encourage others to perpetrate the same fraud?

Does not this kind of settlement almost insure for the participants further losses of the same nature in the future?

Is not this sort of settlement an injury and an insult to the worthy, steady, conservative, reliable customers who are paying one hundred cents on the dollar for all their bills?

The notion that the “Does not X ...?” was the standard form in earlier centuries is not strongly corroborated by a Google Books search. Search results yield countervailing examples at least as far back as Nicholas Rowe, "Some Account of the Life, &c. of Mr. William Shakespear" (1709):

Orestes imbrues his hands in the blood of his own mother ; and that barbarous action is performed, though not immediately upon the stage, yet so near, that the audience hear Clytemnestra crying out to Ægysthus for help, and to her son for mercy : while Electra her daughter, and a Princess (both of them characters that ought to have appear'd with more decency ) stands upon the stage and encourages her brother in the Parricide. What horror does this not raise! Clytemnestra was a wicked woman, and had deserv’d to die ; nay in the truth of the story, she was kill’d by her own son ; but to represent an action of this kind on the stage, is certainly an offence against those rules of manners proper to the persons, that ought to be observed there.

In the eighteenth century the “Does not this ...?” form is more frequent in Google Books results than the “Does this not ...?” form, but the total number of matches for both is very small. Neither form occurs in any great numbers in Google Books results until the first half of the nineteenth century, during which period (by my count) a Google search finds 13 unique matches for “Does not this ...?” and 30 unique matches for “Does this not ...?” indicating that the modern preference for “Does this not ...?” had already taken hold by 1850.

I didn’t run comparable searches for “Is not X ...?” versus “Is X not ...?” or for “Should not X ...?” versus “Should X not ...?” or for any other such pair of alternatives. Still, I feel fairly confident that the results for the pair I did check are representative of those for the larger population of such pairs.

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    By my count, Shakespeare used "do not you" in questions six times, and "do you not" twenty-six. (There are quite a few more instances of "do not you" that are imperatives.) So it appears that both word orders have been grammatical for a long time, and only relatively recently has "do not you" lost out nearly completely to "do you not". – Peter Shor Feb 8 '15 at 22:00
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    @PeterShor: Excellent point. And Shylock's famous speech in The Merchant of Venice contains both forms: "Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? ... If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, do we not revenge?" Here, in close proximity, we have "Hath not a Jew" twice and "do we not" four times. – Sven Yargs Feb 8 '15 at 22:59
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I would say that there's nothing grammatically wrong with the construction Do not you want to know?, but that it would not normally be encountered in present-day speech or writing. It might well be found in verse, however, as it has a nice iambic rhythm. Another way of wording the same phrase in a way that would sound peculiar in modern everyday language, yet is technically not wrong, is Want you not to know?

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I would say most speakers, nowadays or historically, wouldn't find a distinction useful often, in that kind of sentence thing.

I'm all for reminding meself of the uncontracted forms, from time to time..

But I think, in this case, I'd have to call you a bit of an activist! Hehe

But I'm ever well up for some cider with Rosie!

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