A place where you can use a contraction in English but not the uncontracted form?

I just wrote: "Why shouldn’t public policy ameliorate this problem?"

Then I thought, "Should I really be using a contraction here?" (Thinking about what level of formality my audience would expect in this article.)

But then I tried the sentence without the contraction: "Why should not public policy ameliorate this problem?"

Wow! The version without the contraction sounds completely awkward to my ear, as though it were written by someone for whom English is a clumsily spoken second-language, while the one with the contraction seems just fine.

Is this a recognized linguistic phenomena? Is there a name for it?

Note, there are many cases where the contracted form would be more normal in everyday speech:

"No, I can't go."

But in writing, or even in speech when one wanted to emphasize the "not," "No, I cannot go" would be entirely acceptable and unexceptionable. But "Why should not X?" seems different: it is not just less usual, but almost out-right wrong. I would never expect to hear a native speaker say "Why should not I go to the mall today?" On the other hand, "Why shouldn't I go to the mall today?" is just fine.


  1. I think the issue is simply this: in a statement, we form contractions by keeping the "not" in the same place as in the statement without the contraction. But in a question, we move the "not" forward, e.g. "Can you not see the truth?" becomes "Can't you see the truth?" and "Is that not your dad?" becomes "Isn't that your dad?"

    At least to my ear, when you move the "not" back your examples sound fine: "Why should public policy not ameliorate this situation?" and "Why should I not go to the mall today?"

    1. Excellent, Mathman! I had not tried moving the "not."

  2. It does not sound incorrect to me, just archaic.

    And, which is more than all these boasts can be,
    I am beloved of beauteous Hermia:
    >>Why should not I then prosecute my right?
    Demetrius, I'll avouch it to his head,
    Made love to Nedar's daughter, Helena,
    And won her soul; and she, sweet lady, dotes,
    Devoutly dotes, dotes in idolatry,
    Upon this spotted and inconstant man.

    That is from Shakespeare. If you put "why should not I" into google, you'll get lots of old quotes.

    Keep doing it, sayeth I. It maketh thee look smart. :)

    1. Well, I would say it is incorrect to use Elizabethan English in 2014 unless you in a play or going for some special effect!


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