This question already has an answer here:

Recently I have been writing a chatbot, and in part of the process it expands contractions. While doing this, I have found odd behavior for the contraction "isn't". There are two different way to expand this contraction:

isn't this great → is this not great?


what isn't great → what is not great

Essentially, in some cases the "not" goes after the following word (the word following the contraction); in others it doesn't. I can't seem to nail down in which cases this happens and in which cases it doesn't. Is there some rule to specify how it expands?

marked as duplicate by tchrist, user140086, Hellion, ab2, choster May 24 '16 at 16:30

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

  • 1
    Good question. I suspect it's mostly idiomatic with no hard and fast rules, but your first example seems exceedingly rare. I can't think of any other cases where the is and not are split except questions of the form Isn't <noun> <adj>. – Cheezmeister May 21 '16 at 20:10
  • Notice that for the first case, "this" splits the contraction and the adjective, whereas in the second case, the contraction and the adjective are adjacent. – Lanier Freeman May 21 '16 at 21:02
  • 2
    Note that "is not this great" is a "legal" (though rather "stiff"/archaic) formation. – Hot Licks May 21 '16 at 21:27
  • 4
    (1) I think you’ll find that most not → n’t contractions behave similarly in questions, and (2) an overly simple-minded, mechanical expansion of not → n’t contractions in questions may distort the meaning. Flying in the fact of logic, many people interpret “Don’t you want it?” as synonymous with “Do you want it?” It would be clearly wrong to say “Do not you want it?”, but the grammatical and logical construction, “Do you not want it?”, will confuse people.  (“Don’t you have any bananas?” → “Yes, we have no bananas.”)  There has been quite a bit of discussion on this topic on this site. – Scott May 21 '16 at 22:54
  • 2
    You have to think of negative contractions as atomic verbs, irreducible into their original components. That’s because they act completely different from those. – tchrist May 22 '16 at 2:21

When auxiliary verbs or modals participate in subject auxiliary inversion(of course, all forms of 'to be' and 'to have' where they are principal as well)they can be negated by simple addition of 'not'after them.

N't is contraction of "NOT". Negation of auxiliary verbs ending in 'n't' can participate in inversion as a unit.

  • Isn't this great?

So when contracted, as Wikipedia exemplifies,

—* Why have you not done it? becomes,

  • Why haven't you done it?

and goes thus far as to regard these negated-contacted-auxilaries as self sufficient UNIT of auxiliary verbs by their own right.

As an alternative, it says not to use the contraction, in which case only the verb inverts with the subject while the "NOT" is placed after it.

  • Isn't this great> is this not great?

Note the form with *"Isn't it" no longer a simple contraction of the fuller form (which must be "is he not", and not * is not he.) Similar is the case of almost all other auxiliaries or modals.

When it is not inversion, N't form is colloquial or in speech.

In the other example with WHAT (acting as relative/interrogative pronoun) the subject is this pronoun itself. Here "n't" has its spoken usage, nothing more.

In our school days, we were taught not to invert NOT if the subject is a pronoun and to invert if a noun — veracity of which still eludes my understanding.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.