Position of not in questions


Is there any difference between the following sentences?

Could not you help him?
Could you not help him?

For me, it seems as if the first sentence is more like a complaint 'You didn't help him, I'm angry at you' while the second one is 'Could you stay away and not help him? I want him to do it on his own'.

Didn't you help him?
Did you not help him?

In this pair, I read the first one as 'I think you helped him. Didn't you?' and the second as 'Did you refuse to help him?'. Am I right?

Vlad Stryapko

Posted 2014-06-07T12:12:02.180

Reputation: 531



Syntactically, OP's first alternative (Could not you help him?) is more "correct", in that it places the negating not closer to could - the element it most applies to. But idiomatically today we almost always contract that to...

Couldn't you help him?

...even in "formal" contexts. But people often think of such contractions as "informal", and precisely because everyone normally makes the above contraction, the full form as given by OP tends to sound "strange" to the native ear. Thus, when looking for more formal phrasing we're likely to think in terms of discarding the contraction, but we avoid OP's #1 and go for #2 because it doesn't sound quite so odd.

In fact, given a formal setting (lawyer questioning witness, say) there's nothing at all unusual about...

"Is not this the murder weapon, Professor Plum?"
"Could not the gun cabinet have been left unlocked, Colonel Mustard?"
"Was not the dagger kept with the other cutlery in the kitchen, Mrs Peacock?"

OP's idea that the position of not determines whether it's a genuine enquiry or a complaint isn't quite right. What matters is that a complaint would stress the word not - which you can't do if it's contracted. You want that stress because effectively all the other words in the utterance apart from could and not simply describe the current situation (although less common, in most contexts it's possible to stress could instead of not when the intention is to complain about something rather than ask if it's true).

Note that it's not always possible to distinguish a question from a request. For example, given just...

"Could you not do that?"

...it can often be effectively impossible without further context to establish whether the speaker is asking you to stop doing something (complaint) or asking whether you're unable to do it (question).

In short, context and intonation are crucial in such negated constructions. Consider, for example,...

"Could you not do that?"

...which might mean...

1: You're doing it right now, and I want you to stop
2: It's what you plan to do, and I'm asking if you will (or are able to) change your plan
3: It's not what you plan to do, but I'm asking if you will change your plan
(and probably other possibilities)

If it's not obvious how #2 and #3 apply, consider "Could you not work tomorrow?", which could either be asking you to take an unscheduled day off, to work on a day when you normally wouldn't.

FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica

Posted 2014-06-07T12:12:02.180

Reputation: 52 587

Thank you. Would you mind explaining 'didn't you' and 'did you not'? Perhaps, in more laconic way. I assume that the difference has already been mentioned in the other answer; however, it would be nice if you gave your opinion as well. – Vlad Stryapko – 2014-06-07T18:37:59.513

1@Smilez: You had both a typo and two words transposed in your first "didn't" example (Didn't help you help him? would *never* be valid), so I've just edited to what I assume you intended. Also note that #3 (Didn't you help?) would almost never occur in non-contracted form. But I don't see any significant semantic distinction between #3 and #4. They both include negation, suggesting the speaker either suspects perhaps you *didn't* help, or strongly believes you *should have*. Compare Don't I know you? and Do I know you? for the implications of negated questions. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2014-06-07T19:22:51.740


As to the form of your question, Could not you help him is incorrect. It should be Could you not help him. This is simply a matter of taking the affirmative sentence you could not help him, and inverting the subject and the modal: could you not help him.

As to the meaning, there are two, since could can be a past form, or a conditional form:

Could you not help him?

  1. Were you not able to help him? [past]
  2. Please don't help him. [I prefer that you don't help him... could you do that?] [conditional]

Add to this: Couldn't you help him? which has meaning (1) above, as well as: Isn't there something you could do for him (now)?

Did you not help him?

  1. Is it true that you didn't help him? [stressing the word help]
  2. Did you refuse to help him? [stressing the word not]

Add to this: Didn't you help him? meaning: I was under the impression that you helped him... is that not the case?

NOTE that you may use contractions per se at the beginning of the question, and these are usually questions of general validity, as seen above. Alternatively, you may use inversion with "not" when seeking more specific information.


Posted 2014-06-07T12:12:02.180

Reputation: 6 719

I'm not quite sure about whether 'Couldn't you...' is incorrect. I've read about such form in Michael Swan's English Grammar in Use. 'Negative questions may be understood as complaints or criticisms. Can't you lend me your pen for a minute? (= something like 'Are you too selfish to lend me ... ?') Don't you ever listen to what I say?' and 'Could you give me a light? (NOT Couldn't you give me the light? this sounds like a complaint')' – Vlad Stryapko – 2014-06-07T14:09:13.627

@Smilez: That interpretation would depend on the intonation and tenor of the speaker, but isn't the default meaning of this construction. My example, meaning "Isn't there something you could do for him now" could be a plea or a complaint, as you put it, depending on the speaker's delivery. – CocoPop – 2014-06-07T14:15:46.487