*Was not having friends in your childhood something you wanted?

Is this sentence grammatically correct and if so what does it mean ?

  • 1
    In modern English, back-formed sentences of the type "Was not X something something something" arise artificially from the wording "Wasn't X something something something." Wasn't stands for "was not," of course, but people wouldn't naturally say "Was not this..." in lieu of "Wasn't this." Instead, they would probably say "Was this not..." So in your example sentence, if the natural-sounding "Wasn't having friends in your childhood something you wanted?" was proscribed for some reason, I would expect the fallback wording to be "Was having friends in your childhood not something you wanted?"
    – Sven Yargs
    Jul 19 '16 at 4:29
  • 1
    @Sven Yargs: The ambiguity is primarily orthographic. If wasn't is written as a contraction, obviously it's impossible for the negating not to be stressed (so the question must be asking for confirmation that you did want childhood friends). In speech the alternative sense is unambiguously presented by stressing not (so the question asks if it's true that you didn't want childhood friends). But with OP's exact orthography we can't tell - unless he italicizes not, we don't know if it's supposed to be stressed or not. Jul 19 '16 at 12:41
  • @FumbleFingers: I hadn't thought about the difference in meaning that a difference in intonation makes in this instance, but you are absolutely right. If the person asking the question wants to know whether the person being addressed actively sought not to have friends, "Was not having friends in your childhood something you wanted?" would be an appropriate way to ask the question. (I ran into this question in the Review queue and thus didn't see Colin Fine's answer, which is to similar effect, though perhaps not as clear about the differences in meaning as your comment.)
    – Sven Yargs
    Jul 19 '16 at 16:12
  • @Sven Yargs: Well, unlike some lower-rep users, I'm sure you can see Spammy's deleted answer too. That was what alerted me to the ambiguity, which is what I think makes this question inherently interesting (and worthy of ELU). As ever, Colin's answer is totally accurate, but it doesn't really explore the issues raised. Thanks to John Lawler's contributions here, I'm getting quite into questions that highlight the distinction between "real" (spoken) language and the orthographic conventions of our attempts to reproduce it on paper. Jul 19 '16 at 16:20

It's a bit awkward, but perfectly grammatical, and if spoken correctly is perfectly understandable.

"Not having friends in your childhood" is the subject of the sentence, inverted with the verb "Was" to make it a question.

  • If @Spammy23's answer hadn't been deleted, I probably wouldn't have closevoted. Assuming OP isn't a native speaker, your take on this is exactly and only the information sought. But your take assumes a crushingly basic level of question that should have been asked on ELL in the first place. Spammy23's answer introduces the far more interesting issue of potential ambiguity (Is it true that you wanted not to have friends? vs Isn't it true that you wanted friends?) Jul 19 '16 at 0:07
  • 1
    Soddit! I'm retracting my closevote, even if I can't be bothered to type an answer raising the ambiguity issue. Jul 19 '16 at 0:09

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