1

I know how negative contractions are used, and that they're all pretty straightforward in informal writing.

Didn't she go to the opera with you?

Weren't you a pastor before, Jacob?

Can't we get in trouble for this?

But I feel like the tones or meanings of these questions change when the contractions aren't used. Like the second one:

Were you not a pastor before, Jacob?

It almost sounds accusatory, in a facetious way. As if to imply Jacob had done something to contradict his prior lifestyle. The third one doesn't even sound correct when being used that way.

Does this tone-shift occur because of how we use the contractions in modern times? And in the instance of the third example, are they all still correct even when they don't seem like it?

1

Each of your sentences, even the third one, can be said with or without the contraction. When it's possible to use the contraction, but not is used instead, it becomes emphatic: it implies that we really believe or expect the positive to be the case.

To express your third phrase without the contraction, one might say:
"How can we not get in trouble for this?"

Without the preceding how, it may sound odd because can we not is commonly used to express something we want, or, depending upon the stress, intonation, and context, something we don't want.

Expressing desire not to go:
"I don't like movies by that director. Can we not go to the movie?"

Expressing desire to go:
"I love this director. Can we not go to the movie?"

I found a short transcript describing this form and its ambiguity: http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/radio/specials/1837_aae/page30.shtml

  • "Can we not go to the movie" can mean we don't want to go to the movie, but it can also mean just the opposite. – Robusto Nov 22 '17 at 23:01
  • @Robusto Thank you for pointing that out. I have updated my answer. – pablopaul Nov 25 '17 at 6:01
  • I upvote your excellent answer. In the interests of clear communication it is always better to avoid (out)dated language, especially phrases that have taken a very different 'common' meaning over the years. I have read 'can we not' used instead of 'can't we' in novels and children's books written before 1960, esp. UK [Oh Mother! Disneyland is the place to be on a Saturday -- please can we not go there today?] but if somebody used that form today people would take the other meaning you pointed out as in, "Pool is such a boring place to be on a holiday weekend; please can we not go there?" – English Student Nov 25 '17 at 6:30

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