I wrote this sentence:

Why wouldn't it be valid?

--and I realized that without the contraction it becomes:

Why would it not be valid?

As opposed to "why would not it be valid," as the contraction would imply.

What's going on here? Why can I contract across the middle word this way? Or, to put it the other way, why can't I "de-contract" this without moving the not over by a word?

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    Because "why would itn't be valid" would be daft? Possibly because we say "It wouldn't be valid", and therefore use the contraction as one word when it's inverted for a question? – Margana Jun 17 '15 at 20:25
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    You can de-contract (= expand) the middle word where it is—it’s just not very common in current English. It does still pop up here and there, and if you’re going for an archaic style, it may even be a good choice (for example, Esaiah 58:6 has “Is not this the fast that I choose?”); but few now use it in conversation. Also, there are certain constrictions, such as the [verb] not [subject] construction not accepting non-emphatic pronominal subjects: “Is not this…?” works fine, but “Is not it…?” is entirely ungrammatical. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 17 '15 at 21:06
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    I just found two possible duplicates: english.stackexchange.com/questions/212680/…, english.stackexchange.com/questions/82982/… – herisson Jun 17 '15 at 22:43
  • @Margana +1, but just wait; daft constructions are becoming more and more acceptable. – Andreas Blass Jun 18 '15 at 0:50
  • This has been adequately dealt with on this site. – Kris Jun 18 '15 at 7:01

Even though the standard term for these combinations of an auxiliary + -n't is "contractions", grammatically they act like single, indivisible words*; rather than like two words slurred together (though that was evidently their historical origin). This single word is a auxiliary, so it goes in the normal position for an auxiliary in an interrogative sentence: after the question-word and before the subject.

Why wouldn't it be valid? Question word - auxiliary - subject - [rest of sentence]

When you use "would not," on the other hand, you have two words: the auxiliary "would", and the distinct word "not" (a word that doesn't fit very well into the general part-of-speech categories). The auxiliary again goes into the normal position for an auxiliary. The word "not" has its own, different rules for where it goes in a sentence.

Why would it not be valid? Question word - auxiliary - subject - [rest of sentence]

*In fact, some linguists think the negative suffix in these words is best analyzed as an inflection in modern English, like the suffix "-s" used in third person.

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  • Yes. Did you say this before Joseph? I have just the reservation about this answer that you call "wouldn't" a verb. It's an auxiliary, and not everyone would agree that it counts as a verb. – Greg Lee Jun 18 '15 at 1:32
  • @GregLee: From what I recall, I initially posted before Joseph, then he posted his answer while I was editing mine. I didn't realize that it was controversial that auxiliaries are verbs in English; I commonly hear the term "auxiliary verbs" used, though of course the modal auxiliaries are quite defective as verbs. They're not considered the main verb of the clause, but they do seem to act like verbs syntactically w.r.t word order, which is the relevant issue here. – herisson Jun 18 '15 at 1:51
  • Actually, I guess since inversion without an auxiliary is now archaic in English for most verbs, the modal auxiliaries don't pattern with verbs in general, but specifically with the copulative verb and the dummy verb "do" (which I think are both unambiguously verbs, seeing as they have complete verbal paradigms.) – herisson Jun 18 '15 at 1:57
  • I just said that not everyone would agree. Chomsky's treatment in Syntactic Structures treats them as though each had a special part of speech. Ross argued that they were verbs in Auxiliaries as Main Verbs. Ray Jackendoff argued against Ross. I myself have a theory that requires them not to be verbs. – Greg Lee Jun 18 '15 at 2:09
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    @PeterShor: That would help explain the acceptability of "Why wouldn't it", but it doesn't explain the marginal acceptability of "Why would not it" (in Modern English). It's a good point that the position of the -n't may be derived historically from the actual position of the uncontracted word "not", rather than from moving with the verb. – herisson Jun 18 '15 at 17:09

I explain it this way:

Why wouldn't it be valid?

Because this is a question, the subject "it" goes directly after the helping verb "wouldn't" and before the verb "be". Notice the difference between a question and a statement:

Why would it be valid?

It would be valid.

When you make a contraction, multiple words become one word. "Would not" becomes "wouldn't". In a question, the subject—"it" in this case—would still appear after the helping verb "wouldn't" and before the verb "be".

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  • I think this is right, except that "it" should not be called an object. "It" is the subject. The "wouldn't" moves to before "it" by the rule of subject-auxiliary inversion. – Greg Lee Jun 17 '15 at 22:21

[It appears to me now that Joseph's answer is better than what I said below. At any rate, the key point is that "not" does not hop over the intervening "it" as part of the process of contraction.]

It's because the contraction is obligatory, in this case. For understanding the syntax, you can regard "Why wouldn't it be valid" as equivalent to *"Why would not it be valid". The only reason the latter example is ungrammatical is that it has not undergone an obligatory contraction.

The existence of obligatory transformations makes transformational theory more abstract, since patterns can be assumed which never turn up explicitly.

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    Is there an explanation for why the contraction is obligatory in this particular case, but not in others? – herisson Jun 17 '15 at 21:07
  • @sumelic Not sure if it’s really an explanation as such, but it would appear to have something to do with stress units. The contraction is only obligatory when the subject is unstressed, and in this position, the negation is inherently unstressed—a full negation would then create two unstressed, but non-contracted, constituents in a row, which is (apparently?) not allowed. Consider how “You are not it” is also only valid if the negation is stressed (in which case it usually becomes “You’re not it”); if unstressed, it becomes obligatorily “You aren’t it”. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 17 '15 at 21:12
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: how do we tell if the negation is stressed? I'm having a hard time figuring that out. Is this the definition where any words that don't have reduced vowels are assumed to be stressed? For me, "YOU are not it", with the main sentence stress on "you" and not on "not", is a possible sentence. – herisson Jun 17 '15 at 21:16
  • @sumelic I guess basically yes. It doesn't have to have primary stress, just any stress. ‘Reduced vowels’ is kind of a wishy-washy term, too, but I'd say completely unstressed vowels are nearly always at least somewhat reduced. “YOU are not it” said absolutely no stress or emphasis at all on anything but you is not a possible sentence for me, at least. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 17 '15 at 21:21
  • It's very interesting why contraction should be obligatory here. I don't know. I'll think more about @JanusBahsJacquet's idea. However, my answer is trying to explain something else: why in the process of contracting does "not" hop over "it"? That's what was asked. My explanation is that it doesn't happen. The "would" and "not" that give rise to "wouldn't" are actually contiguous. I don't have to say why there is hopping going on if there is no hop. Mystery solved. – Greg Lee Jun 17 '15 at 21:51

It reflects an older sentence structure of English which is no longer used. You placed the negative immediately after the verb it was negating ('not' placed after 'would'). This structure was used when the contraction first developed. That placement of the negative has changed but is preserved in the contraction.

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