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In an online discussion I have used a phrase "Could you not go there?", in the sense of asking a person not to go there. Someone pointed out to me that the expression is completely wrong, which startled me a bit. A cursory Google search made it clear that the phrase indeed is not really in use.

I cannot, however, put my finger on what exactly is wrong with it. I feel one could correctly say "Could you go there?", but the negation of that is somehow wrong?

Now, I know that there are multiple ways to avoid the conundrum altogether by saying something like "Would you mind not going there", but I would love to learn what the rule (of thumb) is in this regard. Thanks in advance!

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    Are you asking them or telling them?
    – Jim
    Jul 20, 2019 at 17:05
  • @Jim: asking, there is a question mark at the end.
    – Maxim.K
    Jul 20, 2019 at 18:16
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    There is nothing wrong with asking Could you not go there? It's essentially exactly the same as asking Could you avoid going there? Jul 20, 2019 at 18:22
  • @Maxim.K - Yes, I saw the question mark. If a parent says, “Could you not do that anymore” They are telling the child to stop even if it’s framed as a question.
    – Jim
    Jul 20, 2019 at 19:21
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    I agree with @JasonBassford - I can't see anything wrong with this phrase and would use it myself. I think we put too much reliance on the great god Google and its opinions.
    – Mynamite
    Jul 21, 2019 at 0:36

3 Answers 3

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I think your premise that the problem is negation is incorrect. Likewise that there is some precise standard grammatical solution to the problem that does exist.

The problem is that could is used as both a past tense and a polite way of expressing a request or an injunction, and thus — depending on the following verb — ambiguity can often arise if the context is not clear.

To take your example, without the negation, Could you go there? can mean

either

Were you able to go there?

or

I wish you to go there.

This does not happen with all verbs, e.g.

Could you see the house?

…is a question about the past, (English requires look at in the imperative form), whereas

Could you see to the children?

…is 95% certain to be a request in the present or future.

Such ambiguities are common in language and rely on context (e.g. tomorrow, yesterday) for clarification in the written language. In the spoken language tone of voice indicates whether something is a question or a request/injunction.

For this reason, in the context of an online exchange, I would use an exclamation mark to distinguish a request from a question. (I think exclamation marks are over used, but this is a simple ‘fix’.):

Could you not go there? (question)

Could you not go there! (injunction)

This, I think, provides a way of solving the problem without altering the sentence. However, in practice, as @Pam and I indicated, the addition of “Please” to the request would put the situation beyond doubt.

Please could you not go there?

and, perhaps also change could to would, which is still technically ambiguous (habitude) but less so:

Please would you not go there?

It would also remove any ‘guilt’ you may feel at omitting the question mark from what ostensibly is a question. Punctuation is not a form of grammar, however, and I regard it as unnecessary (even foolish) to follow an injunction with a question mark. I imagine this topic has been covered elsewhere.

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    I have removed my original answer and replaced it with this one which is from a different standpoint, although it includes my original suggestion.
    – David
    Jul 20, 2019 at 20:46
  • thank you for the elaborate answer. I think it covers the question domain quite nicely.
    – Maxim.K
    Jul 21, 2019 at 8:00
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First, although the phrase "Could you not go there?" sounds a little like it comes from an American sitcom, I would understand you perfectly. You want me to stop my current line of questioning/discussion.

In certain parts of Scotland (where "Chewin' the Fat" is set/popular), the phrase you would probably use in a similar context is:

"gonnae no go there"

And Wiktionary gives a translation of "gonnae no" as "don’t".

Therefore I suggest you should use the phrase:

"(Please) Don’t go there"

Although it’s more command than question, this seems appropriate in this context.

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  • Surely it should be “Dinnae go thar Jimmy”
    – David
    Jul 20, 2019 at 17:47
  • Thanks Pam. Like I said, there are multiple ways to phrase that differently. I am just curious what is specifically wrong with that one. I think you might be right that I unconsciously soaked it up from some American show, but I'd rather like to know what is actually wrong with it. Maybe nothing, perhaps it is grammatically correct but not how most native speakers would phrase it. Or maybe this is a matter of British vs. American English. This is the kind of insights I am fishing for. You answer is certainly a good step in the right direction.
    – Maxim.K
    Jul 20, 2019 at 18:20
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There is a simple problem to your question. It is a matter of what people say idiomatically: a matter of usage. Many languages have a way of asking a question (or making a request) in such a way as to indicate that the person asking the question expects a particular answer, yes or no. Latin and Greek had special cue words for this. If I expect the answer 'yes', then at the beginning, I put the word 'nonne' (or in ancient Greek 'αρ'ου - ar'oo'). If I expect the answer 'no', I put the word 'num' (or in ancient Greek 'αρα μη' - ara mi).

English does it slightly differently (and confusingly). Suppose I bump into someone I think I know on the underground, I might say something like this.

Don't I know you? (=Do I not know you?) Or Didn't we meet at the teachers' conference last month?

Or imagine you are becoming enervated by a group of unruly and noisy children and you want them to stop. You might say something like this.

Can't you (can you not) stop screeching at the tops of your voices?

The answer you want is yes they can and you want them to stop. it mean "surely you can stop it. This seems strange, but that is how it is. If you want you indicate you expect the answer 'no' you have to say something more convoluted.

I don't know you, do I? This means I don't think I know you.

Even here, by tone and expression I can turn it round to suggest the opposite!

Coming to your example, the expression could you not (or couldn't you) is regularly used as introducing a question to which the answer 'yes' is anticipated. So to achieve your intended meaning, you need a device. One way would be through vocal emphasis.

Could you NOT go there? or

Could you please not go there?

Then it would be clear what you trying to say. Don't you think English is a funny old language?

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