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I noticed an oddity in the sentence Why don't you just do it?: Although I always thought of don't simply as of a short form of do not it seems to me as if this is not the case in this sentence. Instead, don't appears as a particle of its own, i.e. it cannot be deconstructed any more. The sentence *Why do not you just do it? sounds ungrammatical to me, but Why don't you just do it? seems fine. (I am not a native speaker.)

I have three questions:

  1. Is "don't" a particle of its own?
  2. Is there a name for this grammatical phenomenon?
  3. Are there other cases besides negated questions where don't cannot be deconstructed?
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    Don't let's worry about this too much. Commented Nov 22, 2023 at 19:23
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    Arguably, "don't" / "doesn't" is a negative auxiliary verb. That's not the way it's usually analyzed in English, but it works pretty much exactly like the negative verbs in Uralic languages like Finnish, Estonian and Sami. Commented Nov 23, 2023 at 19:32
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    Yours was not a “wrong way” sensu stricto so much as one I worried readers might lack the background or context to understand. See the supercited Wikipedia article and especially here where they write: “The negative marker ‑n’t as in couldn’t etc. is typically considered a clitic that developed from the lexical item not. Linguists Arnold Zwicky and Geoffrey Pullum argue, however, that the form has the properties of an affix rather than a syntactically independent clitic.”
    – tchrist
    Commented Nov 23, 2023 at 20:22
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    Why do not you just do it? is not idiomatic. However, Why do you not just do it? might be uncommon, but to this native speaker, it is 100% idiomatic. It allows emphasis that using don't doesn't. Why do you not just do it? Why do you not just do it?
    – CJ Dennis
    Commented Nov 23, 2023 at 22:17

1 Answer 1

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Questions like Why do you play chess? display subject auxiliary inversion; the auxiliary verb do appears before the subject you.

In a normal declarative clause, the adverb not occurs after the first auxiliary, before the next verb in the chain of verbs (or before any modifiers of that following verb phrase):

  1. You do not [play chess].
  2. You do not [just play chess].

If we have subject auxiliary inversion, the adverb not stays in this same position:

  1. Do you not [play chess]?

However, if—and only if—the adverb not is contracted with the auxiliary, in this case the verb do, it gets pulled along with it to the pre-subject position:

  1. Don't you [play chess]?

This is exactly what is happening is the Original Poster's example:

  1. Why do you not [just do it]?
  2. Why don't you [just do it].
  3. *Why do not you [just do it]? (ungrammatical)

Above we see that (7) is ungrammatical because the negative adverb not is not in its normal position before the following verb phrase. It cannot move from this position because it is not contracted with the auxiliary verb.

Some writers, for example The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Huddleston & Pullum, 2002), argue that don't and other negative 'contractions' are not actually contractions at all, but negative inflections of the auxiliary verb. They cite evidence such as the fact that won't is nothing like an amalgam of the words will and not, as well as the phenomenon noticed by the Original Poster in their question. Notice that although with do and don't it looks from the spelling as if we have just tacked n't onto the verb do, the vowel in don't is completely different from the vowel in do, and thus the situation is very similar to the one with will and won't.

Other environments where don't cannot deconstruct:

Unlike the situation with negative questions, where it could be argued that don't can deconstruct, but not in situ—the not must appear in a different position, not next to the auxiliary—there is one case where don't does not readily deconstruct at all. It is also a case where some people have argued that don't is actually a marker and not a verb. This is the case of negative imperatives with subjects. And this time, the phenomenon really is to do with the item do, and not to do with auxiliaries in general.

Imperatives often occur without a subject:

  1. Dance!

If we want to negate the imperative we can use either the item don't or the two words do not:

  1. Don't dance!
  2. Do not dance!

So far, so good. Now, imperatives can also come with subjects. These are usually either the second person singular pronoun you or a word like somebody, anybody, nobody and so forth:

  1. You dance!
  2. Everybody dance!

[ These are pronounced very differently from the case where we have a vocative expression like Bertha/you/everybody, where we would expect a separate prosodic unit (a separate tune) for the vocative:

  1. Bertha, dance!
  2. You, dance!
  3. Everybody! Dance!]

Now, if we want to negate an imperative clause that has an expressed subject, we need to put the word don't before the subject:

  1. Don't you dance!
  2. Don't everyone talk at once.

However, here, there doesn't seem to be any good way at all of decomposing the don't into two separate words in these cases, especially with a second person subject:

  1. *Do not you dance! (ungrammatical)
  2. *Do you not dance! (ungrammatical imperative - would be ok as question)
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    @Stef Well, define “anything like”. To me, repeating willn’t produces something like [wɪɫʷnt] or perhaps [wɪwnt] if the /l/ is debuccalised altogether. Is that ‘anything like’ won’t? Sure. Is it the same vowel as the /oʊ/ in won’t? No. Don’t forget that the vowel quality in won’t comes more from the formerly common present form woll than from will. Commented Nov 23, 2023 at 12:55
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    I’m left pondering whether the negative imperative Don’t you dare dance! can ᴇᴠᴇʀ have a corresponding positive version and if so what that is—and if not, then why it cannot do so.
    – tchrist
    Commented Nov 23, 2023 at 21:11
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    @Araucaria-Him, I was thinking foremost of (12) and then maybe (11). I of course realise that such a distinction is rather pointless in English, because those forms are jdentical to the infinitive anyway.
    – Carsten S
    Commented Nov 24, 2023 at 12:27
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    @CarstenS That's right. We can't really talk about infinitival, subjunctive and imperative forms of the verb (well, one can, but it's very difficult to justify), but we can talk about subjunctive constructions and imperative constructions and so forth. One of the main ways imperatives with subjects are traditionally differentiated from subjunctives is by negation. Subjunctives take not, whereas imperatives require don't/do not, in other words they require do-support. So that would seem to confirm (11-12) as imperatives, if we take that line of thinking. Commented Nov 24, 2023 at 12:52
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    @Araucaria-Him, thank you for the explanation, that’s interesting.
    – Carsten S
    Commented Nov 24, 2023 at 14:45

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