The Grammarphobia Blog

We not know

Q: In your posting about why “you not know” is ungrammatical, you say “not” always follows a verb in a negative statement. Not that I care, but is this always the case?

A: You have a very good eye! We should have said it generally follows the verb, and we’ve changed the post to read as such.

When “not” serves to negate a verb, it usually comes afterward, but it can come first in the following cases:

(1) in infinitive phrases (“I asked the children to not shout, not throw food, and not hit each other”);

(2) in gerund phrases (“Not graduating was a big mistake”);

(3) in participial phrases (“Not knowing his strength, he broke the axe” … “She has lovely hands, not spoiled by gardening”).

In addition to modifying verbs, “not” can modify other elements—a word, a phrase, a clause, or an entire sentence—and it can precede them.

We’ll supply a few examples:

“Not until I’d seen him did I realize he was coming” … “You can have dessert, but not till you finish your peas” … “Not once did he offer to pay” … “Not everybody likes him” … “Elizabeth refused Mr. Collins, not unkindly.”

As we all know, “not” can introduce a sentence fragment or a sentence whose verb is understood: “Not bad!” … “Not I!” … “Not now, thanks” … “Not on your life!”

And finally, as you say, “not” is used at the head of introductory phrases like “not that,” “not but that,” “not but what,” and so on. Such phrases date back to the late 1300s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s a familiar example, from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (written in the late 1500s or early 1600s): “Not that I lov’d Cæsar lesse, but that I lov’d Rome more.”

And this example is from Oliver Goldsmith’s novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766): “Not but that we sometimes had those little rubs.”

Not that this covers every possible contingency, but we think we’ve hit the highlights. Meanwhile, thanks for keeping us on our toes, not that we need it.*

*Actually, we DO need it! We appreciate your comment.

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