The Grammarphobia Blog

Dos and don’ts

Q: I have a question about this sentence: “Projects always beget projects, don’t they?” When someone says, “don’t they?” to solicit agreement, is it short for saying, “do they not?” That certainly sounds better than “do not they?” But maybe “do not they?” was OK at one time.

A: “Don’t” is a contraction of “do not,” as you know. Contractions can also be formed with pronouns, like “they,” as in “they’re,” a contraction of “they are.”

With “they are not,” we have two possible contractions: “they’re not” and “they aren’t.”

But with “do they not?” and “they do not,” the only possible contraction is between “do” and “not,” which yields “don’t they?” and “they don’t.” There’s no legitimate contraction of “they” and “do.”

The interrogative “do they not?” is standard English. It may sound rather antiquated now, but it was once quite common and is still heard today in more formal English.

At one time, however, English speakers also used “do not they?” Here are some examples from the Oxford English Dictionary:

“Why do not they immediately clear themselves from it?” (1769);

“… do not they Pillage him of his Divinity?” (1643);

“Do not they ever want to go back to Russia?” (1876).

Whether you have “do they not?” or “do not they?” in mind, the only possible contraction, as I said, is “don’t they?”

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