72 – Grammar shot: More asymmetry with correlatives (‘not/but’)

Seeing as yesterday was supposed to be a National Grammar Day (at least in America), here comes a grammar shot with a twist. What’s the twist? That hardly anybody notices that anything is amiss in sentences such as the one below, taken from a recent issue of The Economist.

“Russia has taken to arguing that it is not fighting Ukraine, but America in Ukraine.”

 Don’t worry if you can’t identify the fault; you are in good company. If you can, this post is clearly not for you. Those who wish to persevere, please note that ‘not/but’ do the job of correlative conjunctions (I wrote about the correlative conjunctions ‘either/or’ in Grammar shot no 66 on 3rd January 2015) and are thus supposed to be followed by units which do an EQUIVALENT job or have an EQUIVALENT status. This can best be seen if we bracket off what follows immediately after ‘not’ and ‘and’.

not [fighting]

but [America]

Is ‘fighting’ in any way equivalent to ‘America’? No, of course not – hence the asymmetry in the title of this post. In sentences such as this, the answer lies in moving ‘not’ and placing it where it would match ‘but’ in terms of what follows.

Russia has taken to arguing that it is fighting NOT Ukraine BUT America in Ukraine.

The bracketing below highlights the restored symmetry.

not [Ukraine]

but [America]

Asymmetry with correlative conjunctions is extremely common – though not always as easily remediable as that in this example. But, not wanting to muddy the waters, I will leave sentences requiring a more invasive intervention for later. Below are given three more examples (from quality British newspapers) where a simple relocation of ‘not’ provides the answer, the bracketing making the point clear – I hope.

INCORRECT

“It’s not a question of if, but when.” (The Sunday Times)

BECAUSE

not [a question]

but [when]

CORRECT

It’s a question of NOT if BUT when.

BECAUSE

not [if]

but [when]

 

INCORRECT

“In one school, I was not given a proper contract but a series of one-year contracts.” (The Times Educational Supplement)

BECAUSE

not [given]

but [a series]

CORRECT

In one school, I was given NOT a proper contract BUT a series of one-year contracts.

BECAUSE

not [a proper contract]

but [a series of one-year contracts]

 

INCORRECT

“They are not being lazy but in tune with their natural body rhythms.” (The Times Educational Supplement)

BECAUSE

not [being lazy]

but [in tune]

CORRECT

They are being NOT lazy BUT in tune with their natural body rhythms.

BECAUSE

not [lazy]

but [in tune]

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9 thoughts on “72 – Grammar shot: More asymmetry with correlatives (‘not/but’)

  1. It’s actually taken me a couple of reads on this one to get it. These are really tough. You did a good job illustrating how to properly use correlative conjunctions. I probably do lousy at these. I’m not sure I ever really looked to find out! Will have to put this in my brain to stew for a while and let it simmer. Hmmmm….

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow this is a harder one. The second example: ” it is not a question of if, but when.” I think this is a common usage. At least I think I have heard this expression used just like this many times. And the last example. Not being lazy sounds a bit more natural to me than being not lazy but.. I think I would definitely get this mixed up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are right, Deborah: it is common usage – quite possibly because people want to get the negative out of the way first. But “It’s not a question of if but when” means that it’s actually NOT a question of WHEN! Compare this with: “It’s not a question of if – it’s a question of when”, where you have perfect symmetry and where you actually convey the intended meaning faultlessly. The disadvantage here, of course, is greater length – that’s why I supplied the shorter alternative. As for the last example, one could adopt the same strategy: “They are not being lazy; they are being in tune (…)”. I realise that many people would just shrug their shoulders and dismiss similar observations with “We know what we mean”, to which I usually reply that communication (beyond the most basic level) is as much about conveying the intended meaning as about creating the desired effect. Since audiences differ, I won’t go into what effect asymmetry with correlative conjunctions is likely to create, but I know what effect it has on grammarians. By the way; I admire your perseverance, Deborah: it can’t be easy for a perfectly rounded human being to follow a blog such as mine! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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