1. He not is.

  2. He is not.

Using the second method, you have to listen to the third word 100% of the time, instead of only when "not" is used.

  • 3
    Because English is not symbolic logic? If you reversed it, you'd have to wait longer to hear the verb. Also, not modifies the object of the sentence, not the verb: He is (not hungry). Commented Jul 1, 2020 at 23:49
  • @JasonBassford Just to clarify, "hungry" is a subject complement, not an object. And "not" negates the verb, not the subject complement.
    – Gustavson
    Commented Jul 2, 2020 at 1:02
  • @Gustavson I disagree. Not with the verbiage within the syntactic vocabulary you're using (although it's a different discourse space), but with the particular method of analysis you're choosing with respect to what I'm trying to say. In particular, I am affirming a positive of a negative aspect. Which is why I used the parentheses in exactly the way I did. Had I meant to affirm a negative of a positive aspect, I would have used he (is not) hungry, which is a totally different interpretation. In the way I used it, it does not negate the verb at all. Commented Jul 2, 2020 at 1:35
  • Jason, as usual, is quite correct. You can think of He is not as a prefix to the rest of the sentence about precisely what He is not. He is not hungry; He is not a unicorn; the fun never ends.
    – Elliot
    Commented Jul 2, 2020 at 1:38
  • 1
    For "not" to refer to "hungry", a special context is needed, for example: He wants something, but he's not hungry -- just thirsty. "not" will negate the verb in other contexts: Is he hungry? / No, he isn't.
    – Gustavson
    Commented Jul 2, 2020 at 1:58

1 Answer 1


There are a lot of things going on here even for something so simple as where to place negation. There are general linguistic things going on, plus English specific things.

In general, anything goes in grammar. OK not -anything-, but quite a lot you wouldn't expect. Some languages have Subject Verb-Object order (or SOV):

The man catches the rabbit.

This seems entirely logical to me, and anything else is stark raving lunacy. Except some languages are Subject-Object-Verb. Classically, Vulgar Latin has this:

homo leporem capit. ("Man rabbit catches")

SVO and SOV are the most common languages in the world, but there are even VSO languages, like Irish.

Glacann an fear an coinín ("Catches the man the rabbit")

(as the Germans say "Die Iren sind irren").

The point of this so far is that the order of pieces can vary. None are illogical. It's in some sense a style choice that just happens to be preserved in a community so it feels like it is eternal truth.

So whether you put the negative marker first or second, -something- is going to be left unsaid.

  1. "He is..." what is it? "He is not..." OK whatever it is it's not that, but what is it still? That's the current way.

  2. "He not..." what's going to not happen? "He not is..." OK, but still what is it that is not?

It kinda turns out that English does -both- kinds of negation.

The man does not catch the rabbit.

The marker for negation here comes before like you desired (that pesky 'does' has an interesting history called 'do-support'). But that is not 'logical' it's just one way of doing things.

French also has interesting negation. It used to put 'ne', essentially the same thing as English 'not', in front of the verb.

L'homme n'attrape pas le lapin

(the 'e' in 'ne' is elided because it's easy to do). But what is that 'pas'? It literally means English 'step' and is sort of like 'not one step' as an intensifier.

And over the years, colloquial French has tended to -drop- the 'ne' entirely. You'll hear important people in the news saying

L'homme attrape pas le lapin.

So even though 'pas' literally means 'step', it doesn't matter what it literally means because it is the only thing that marks negation in the sentence so it totally means 'not' now.

That's pretty much it. You just gotta get used to the idea that:

  • Language wasn't designed by one person who is trying to optimize one of your pet criteria (let's say 'continuous partial prefix interpretation'?)

  • Language changes. Styles change, order of words change, vocabulary changes.

  • Language does a bunch of other crazy stuff you wouldn't expect. You just get used to it.

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