The novels of Jane Austen frequently contain constructions of the form

auxiliary verb not

which today are forbidden. We have

Didn't you like it?

Did you not like it?


*Did not you like it?

Do we have any evidence as to whether she was accurately reporting speech, or whether this was then the orthography for what we write as didn't, don't, etc.?

This is related to this question and to this paper by Zwicky and Pullum mentioned there, but those assume that the given construction is forbidden, whereas here we see it used.

Some arbitrary examples from Pride and Prejudice (1813) and Persuasion (posthumous, 1818):

Pride and Prejudice

ch. 5
"did not I mention it to you?"

ch. 6
"they called here afterwards, did not they?"

ch. 10
"Do not you, Darcy?”

ch. 12
"would not it be better for Captain Benwick"


ch. 7
"why should not I?"

ch. 9
"would not it be better"

ch. 12
"Do not you, Anne?"
"did not you hear, did not his servant say"

ch. 23
"What should not you mind?"

  • 4
    This probably belongs on English SE, but since Jane Austen generally had no problem writing contractions as such, we can assume this reflects actual usage -- which anyway might be assumed a priori as the source of constructions like Don't you.
    – Tom Recht
    Commented Feb 16, 2022 at 21:18
  • 2
    @TKR They might be, but they needn’t be. The fact that don’t you exists doesn’t imply that do not you ever did; a simple inversion analogy would do the trick just as well, and historically speaking, it is be the most unexpected and uncommon word order within Germania. There is the fact that it does exist to this day in a few, specific contexts, albeit mostly archaic or archaicising ones (“Is not this the fast that I have chosen?” and so on), but that in itself also doesn’t necessitate an erstwhile broader application of the structure. Commented Feb 17, 2022 at 1:13
  • You may consult other corpora apart from the works of Jane Austen to shed more light on your research question. For something close to the spoken language of the time period in question I recommend the Old Bailey Corpus.
    – jk - Reinstate Monica
    Commented Feb 18, 2022 at 9:43
  • To make this more appropriate for Lingustics SE (instead of English SE), the OP could could have directed the question toward [transformational-grammar] or [universal-grammar] or [x-bar-theory] tags or some such niche community to discuss the mechanisms independent of English usage/history per se.
    – Andreas ZUERCHER
    Commented Feb 18, 2022 at 18:55
  • It would be interesting to hear about X-bar (or other) syntactic analyses of this. But maybe my question really is historical linguistics, or English SE, since I'm interested in, first, if we have evidence that this really was usage at the time.
    – eac2222
    Commented Feb 18, 2022 at 21:12

1 Answer 1


I have relied heavily on Jespersen's "A modern English grammar on historical principles" Part 5 Syntax V4 1940 (Chapter 13 - It is availble on the internet and is well worth reading.) Quotes, unless otherwise stated, are taken from there.

Negation started in Old English with "ne" ic ne secge - I not say. After a transition through ME I ne seye not, by the 15th century, because of a lack of stress, "ne" disappeared and left "not" after the verb. "I say not." However, this convention was not always followed and the use of "not" instead of the preceding (and now omitted) "ne" sometimes appeared. However, this was not standard and in

"And if I not performe, God let me neuer thrive"

performe not is considered by Puttenham, in "The Arte of English Poesie" 1589 p262, as a "pardonable fault" which "many times giues a pretie grace vnto the speech";

The I say not construction survived for quite a while against the periphrastic "do" - probably until the late 18th century - with particular phrases "I know not" / "If I mistake not" surviving a little longer, probably caused by the language of the 1611 KJV Bible:

John 1.5 And the light shineth in darknesse, and the darknesse comprehended it not.

From Jespersen:

In those extremely numerous combinations in which one of the "lesser" verbs appears not was naturally placed before the really significant verb: I will not say, shall not say, must not say, cannot say, have not said, had not said, am not saying, etc."

The rise of "do" had been increasing since the 14th century, and

The position of not before the really important verb is thus carried through: (4) I do not say

We seem to have reached the ideal construction, with a distinct negative word before the essential verb. But the equilibrium is not stable. Even in those cases in which the verb before not is not strongly stressed for the sake of emphasis it tends for rhythmical reasons to be stronger than not, which then tends to lose its vowel so that we get the colloquial

(5) I don't say.

This carries through the attraction of the negative to the (lesser) verb which was prepared long ago in the word-order in questions.

In discussing contractions Jespersen remarks:

Do not becomes don't [dount], which is found, e. g., in Swift [beginning of the 18th c] and Defoe and innumerable times since then.

and then

Naturally the full forms admit of greater emphasis on the negative element than the contracted forms; [kaenot] is hardly ever heard in colloquial speech unless exceptionally stressed, and then the second syllable may have even stronger stress than the first (cf. the italics in Di D 241 I cannot say—I really cannot say). In Byron's D J a distinction seems to be carried through between cannot when the stress is on can, and can not when it is on not. Will not is more emphatic than won't in Ridge G 219 "I won't have it! I will not have it!".

So what we are seeing in Austen is the late 18th century transition from "I say not" to "I do not say" to "I don't say" and the use of emphasis which, in it's turn, is being restrained by the formality of upper- and middle-class speech and Biblical English that does not use contractions.

EDIT 22 FEB 2022

but those assume that the given construction is forbidden, whereas here we see it used.

A few points:

1.In English, a construction cannot be forbidden. There is no overarching authority over language. All Zwicky and Pullam can do is say that they don't think that a particular construction is currently felicitous - and anyone can do that.

  1. Jane Austen wrote in an English that was current in the late 18th century and her characters are mostly upper class and formal. Her readership was the middle and upper classes.

Language changes.

I looked at Google Ngrams for did not I mention,did not they,do not you,would not it be,why should not I

Most are old or translations or by authors from the Indian Subcontinent, and you will see that most are rare in Modern Western English.

However, "Do not you" stands out as being far more frequent. It seems to have lasted until the 1930s, and I would not be surprised to see it currently:

These are taken from Google Books

Index to the Reports of Committees of the House of Representatives - Page 443 1876 Q. Do not you know that he also testified that he was a resident of California when he put in his bid?

United States Congressional Serial Set - Volume 6155 - Page 461 1912 Do not you know that neither Mr. Lorimer, Mr. Raymond, nor Mr. Magerstadt voted for Harrison at any time in that convention?

Proceedings of the Parliament of South Australia: Volume 3 1917 P159 8824 Do not you think the object was to get pure rolls?

Safety of Life and Property at Sea: Radio installation - Page 91 United States. Congress. House. Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries · 1937 Do not you believe anybody anywhere except your own sources of information?

  • What is the history of the forms when the subject follows the verb? That's what the OP was asking about.
    – Rosie F
    Commented Feb 21, 2022 at 17:53
  • Thanks for the Jespersen reference -- very useful! -- and the summary. I think he doesn't answer what I'm asking, though. Austen seems to have a syntactic construction in questions that is forbidden nowadays, and I'm trying to know whether it's a change in English syntax or simply in the orthography for some contractions.
    – eac2222
    Commented Feb 21, 2022 at 20:29
  • Thanks for the Google n-grams results. I had tried it the other way, looking for contractions, and Google helpfully tells me "Replaced don't with do not to match how we processed the books.". Regarding forbidden constructions, in studying syntax it is common to say that some construction which almost all native speakers will say is "wrong" is forbidden, as a way of learning about the syntactic rules, or types of syntactic rules, in that language.
    – eac2222
    Commented Feb 28, 2022 at 0:20

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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