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Not and its position in the sentence

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In this article we will be looking at the possible problems that may arise when using the negative 'not'. When 'not' is used in conjunction with all, every or because there may be some ambiguity as to the intended meaning.

1. Not … all / not … every

All secretaries are not bilingual.
Every member of the Board was not present.

Although the above examples are not incorrect, they could be misunderstood. The first sentence means that only some secretaries are bilingual. It does not mean that none of the secretaries are bilingual.

Similarly, the second sentence, taken from the minutes of a meeting of a company's Board of Directors, means that some, but not all, of the members were present. It could, however, be understood to mean 'none of the members were present'.

The intended meaning would be much clearer if the authors had written:

Not all secretaries are bilingual.
Not every member of the Board was present.

Drill: Try and rearrange the following sentences to make the meaning clearer:

All politicians are not good communicators
Every solution was not examined

2. Not … because

Again, 'not' followed by 'because' may lead to ambiguity. The sentence:

We did not launch our new product in the Spring because of the economic climate

could mean

  • Either: 'we based our decision not to launch the product on the economic climate',
  • Or: 'it was not because of the economic climate forecast that we decided to launch our product'.

If we rearrange the order of the sentence it immediately becomes much clearer:

Because of the economic climate, we did not launch our new product in the Spring.

This does not mean the 'not … because' structure should be systematically avoided.

The intended meaning of the sentence

I did not come because I had a previous appointment

is perfectly clear (a previous appointment prevented me from coming).

It is extremely unlikely that anyone would understand it to mean 'it was not because I had a previous appointment that I did not come'.

3. Lastly, you should be aware of a different use of 'not'. It can be used as a stylistic device, whereby a term is replaced by the negation of its opposite.

This device was considered very elegant in the past. Fowler ( A Dictionary of Modern English Usage ) mentions an Oxford English Dictionary quotation dated 1671:

We say well and elegantly, not ungrateful, for very grateful.

In other words "I am not ungrateful for your help" means that “I am very grateful for your help”.

This device is now frequently used, some say over-used, in idiomatic English.

Below are several examples of 'not' being used in this way, together with an explanation of the intended meaning.

It is not a hundred miles from here

… it is quite near

I imagine that Anne's parents will not be altogether unrelieved when she returns home tomorrow

… they will be very relieved

The candidates are not infrequently completely unsuitable

… they are often unsuitable

The recent redundancies are presumably not unconnected with the drop in sales

… they are connected with

Although this device is a way of adding colour or humour to one's speech or writing, its users should be aware that it unnecessarily complicates the sentence, and may make their intended meaning unclear. 

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