I know that whenever we bring "not only" at the beginning of a sentence, what comes after it has to be in question form.

Now, I'm having a problem with the negative form of this question. Which one of the following sentences is correct?

Not only doesn't she know, but also ...


Not only does she not know, but also ...

closed as off-topic by Jason Bassford, Janus Bahs Jacquet, JJJ, Chappo, Edwin Ashworth Jun 11 at 19:08

This question appears to be off-topic. The users who voted to close gave this specific reason:

If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 1
    They are both grammatical. – Jason Bassford Jun 9 at 15:13
  • 1
    Hello, navid.h. Why not avoid pathological examples and use plain English? Read OB's answer. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 9 at 16:58
  • One of the not’s in the question title is ungrammatical; the other not is not. But the not that is not grammatical is not there in the question itself. Why not? – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 9 at 17:41
  • @Janus That was funny. So many nots :) When I was writing the title, I tried to put both of the sentences in the question title. So I ended up having too many nots. In the question itself, however, I separated the sentences to avoid the confusion and to make it easier to understand. – navid.h Jun 9 at 20:07
  • 1
    @Janus I agree that we never hear anyone saying "Does not she know?". But it doesn't mean it is ungrammatical. "Doesn't" is just the short version of "Does not". – navid.h Jun 9 at 21:06

This is what mathematicians call a pathological example - one sought out to test the rules to their limit. So on the one hand this specific case may not be covered in the grammars but on the other hand we may be able to learn something about grammar by looking at it.

First we have to look at the question form without the "not only". We find that there are two valid forms:

Does she not know?
Doesn't she know?

Why we are allowed different word order when we want to abbreviate I have no idea. Maybe it is answered in another question.

But whatever the reason, it is nonetheless a fact.

It is another fact (and perhaps there is an explanation on this site for this too but it may be something to do with this) that you use the inverted (or question) form after "not only" so both forms given in the question are logically valid. And indeed they both sound fine to me too.

  • I think the reason for the different word orders comes from the fact that the abbreviation combines the verb and its negation in the statement "She doesn't know" which is then inverted to form a question treating "doesn't" as a verb including the negation. Without the abbreviation the statement is "She does not know" and the inversion leaves the negation where it is becoming "Does she not know?" because it's not part of the verb. Whether "doesn't" should be treated as a verb in this way is above my pay grade, but it is. – BoldBen Jun 10 at 9:11
  • @BoldBen That is a pretty convincing argument. I am not someone who believes these things happen as a result of a single cause but I think you may have identified the most significant cause. I think rules about grammar are often misused to argue that something can't happen. So if someone tells you that you are wrong because doesn't isn't a verb then just ask them what proportion of the people responsible for the development of Modern English knew what a verb was. – David Robinson Jun 10 at 12:43
  • I agree that there's rarely a single cause for this sort of thing. The other point is that the 'rules' of English grammar are formed from the practice of the natual language. The language came first, the formal analysis came much later and the 'rules' only describe how the language works, not define it. So far as I know only Esperanto has rules that were defined before the language was used! – BoldBen Jun 11 at 17:56

Not only does she not know

is a little more formal, and perhaps slightly better, than

Not only doesn't she know

But I'm worried about how you would continue the sentence. Double negatives sound awkward, so we tend (in BrE at least) to avoid the not only - but also formula when the verb is negative.

If we find we HAVE embarked on such a formula we often don't bother finishing it 'properly': "Not only does she not know: she doesn't even care." This might not be grammatically perfect but it is colloquial. It would be better and simpler to say,

She neither knows nor (cares)

or perhaps

She doesn't know and she doesn't (care).

If, on the other hand, the stress in your example is on "she", then you need to rewrite it. There are several better ways to say, "Not only does she not know, but also he doesn't." "She doesn't know but neither does he." Or less emphatically, "Neither of them knows." (Or "know". It is much discussed!)

  • 1
    “Not only does she not know, but also he doesn’t” is highly awkward to me, bordering on ungrammatical. Also and so both become neither or nor with a negation: “Not only does she not know, but he doesn’t either”. There is also nothing ungrammatical about “Not only does she not know – she doesn’t even care” (the colon is misapplied, I feel, but that’s punctuation, not grammar). There is no necessity, grammatical or otherwise, for a not only clause to be followed by a but also clause. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 9 at 17:49

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