Q: I was listening to the radio the other day when Michelle Obama met a bunch of kids and said, “Is this not cool?” Now, I’ve heard this before and it was obvious from her tone that she meant “Isn’t this cool?” But once I turned off the radio, I started to think about the strangeness of this structure. What exactly is that “not” doing? How is it doing what it’s doing? And why is its meaning so obvious? Or is it?
A: In her remarks at a White House state dinner for kids last August, Michele Obama could have said, “Isn’t this cool?” But instead she made good use of a common rhetorical device and chose “Is this not cool?”
You’re right to think that something’s going on here with “not.” Mrs. Obama’s choice of words called attention to “not,” thus compelling her audience to agree with her.
As you know, a negative verb used in a question can be either contracted or uncontracted. Someone could say “Isn’t this the best lasagna you’ve ever had?” or “Is this not the best lasagna you’ve ever had?”
While the two questions are grammatically equivalent, there’s a rhetorical difference between them. The second example is more emphatic.
Rather than simply asking a question, it seems to be urging agreement with an implied statement, as if the speaker had said, “This is the best lasagna, you must agree.”
One reason the uncontracted form seems more emphatic is that the subject (“this”) changes places. Instead of “Isn’t this …” we have “Is this not ….”
The result is that instead of being buried within the contraction, “not” emerges as a word on its own, and in a more noticeable position to boot.
As Sidney Greenbaum writes in the Oxford English Grammar, “In negative questions, contracted n’t is attached to the operator [the verb] and therefore comes before the subject, whereas not generally follows the subject.”
Using some other examples, notice the contrast between the contractions and the stretched-out forms:
“Aren’t you a smarty-pants?” … “Are you not a smarty-pants?”
“Isn’t she the best teacher?” … “Is she not the best teacher?”
“Aren’t I cool?” … “Am I not cool?”
As it turns out, this emphasis on “not” is more effective in some sentences than in others. In the “smarty-pants” example, for instance, it would be more effective to emphasize the pronoun (as if to say, “Aren’t YOU a smarty-pants?”) than the “not.”
In English, a word’s position in relation to others—that is, its syntax—can play an important role in the meaning of a sentence or a phrase. And the choice of a contracted or an uncontracted verb is a good illustration of this principle.
Update: A reader of the blog reminds us of these lines from Shylock in The Merchant of Venice: “If you prick us, do we not bleed? / if you tickle us, do we not laugh? / if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”
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