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’.
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.
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.
“It’s not a question of if, but when.” (The Sunday Times)
not [a question]
It’s a question of NOT if BUT when.
“In one school, I was not given a proper contract but a series of one-year contracts.” (The Times Educational Supplement)
but [a series]
In one school, I was given NOT a proper contract BUT a series of one-year contracts.
not [a proper contract]
but [a series of one-year contracts]
“They are not being lazy but in tune with their natural body rhythms.” (The Times Educational Supplement)
not [being lazy]
but [in tune]
They are being NOT lazy BUT in tune with their natural body rhythms.
but [in tune]