What is the difference between the two wordings and which one is correct?

(1) Why is past tense not used?

(2) Why is not past tense used?

  • 3
    Meanwhile, it is worthwhile to note that by modern-day standards, the second one would almost be more poetic and philosophical because a bit more emphasis has been placed on "why" whereas the first one is the more "natural" and most likely, more common, construction of the question. You may see here for more information: english.stackexchange.com/questions/16585/…. – Teacher KSHuang Apr 12 '17 at 7:49
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    @TeacherKSHuang I've often heard phrases like "why isn't/hasn't/wasn't" and they confused me, that's why I thought "why is not" is the correct non-contracted counterpart. Now it's clear, thanks! – olegst Apr 12 '17 at 8:02
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    @olegst This always irritated me in English too. Why "Isn't he at home?"*="Is he not at home?"* and not "It not he at home"? But so says the grammar. – SovereignSun Apr 12 '17 at 8:05
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    Because "not" has scope over the verb "used", not over "past tense used". – BillJ Apr 12 '17 at 8:23
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    @user178049 "Scope' of negation is the part of the meaning that is negated. In "He has not got many friends", "not" has scope over the quantifier "many". And in "Not everybody agrees with you", "not" has scope over "everybody". – BillJ Apr 12 '17 at 8:45

You can choose either of the two

Why is past tense not used?


Why isn't past tense used?

  • Can you explain why you can use both? Answer without explanation might be deleted, because they don't teach the patterns of English language well. – Glorfindel May 27 '17 at 13:51

(1) Why is past tense not used?

This is correct, but the sentence places an emphasis on the fact that past tense was not used, and suggests a belief that perhaps it should have been.

(2) Why is not past tense used?

In this construction, "is not" should be replaced with "isn't."

  • +1, though I think you should say "In spoken English, is not would normally be contracted to isn't". – Tᴚoɯɐuo May 19 '17 at 11:26

Both are incorrect, but if you inserted the word "the", the first one would be correct, while the second would still be wrong:

(1) Why is the past tense not used? (correct)

(2) Why is not the past tense used? (not correct)

"Not" modifies "used" rather than "the past tense": "Is the past tense used?" "No, the past tense is not used." Adding "Why" to the beginning of a sentence pulls the auxiliary verb into second position, but leaves "not" and the other words where they were.

UPDATE: As pointed out by @user3081485, you could also write:

(3) Why isn't the past tense used?

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    It might also be useful to mention that the correct informal (and more common) version of (1) is "Why isn't the past tense used?". – Richard Hussong Apr 20 '17 at 19:45

They are both correct, but the first one sounds more natural. An even better phrase would be, 'why isn't past tense used?', because it flows better.


You know that we have the S-V inversion in most questions in English. In your examples the subject is (@Alan) the past tense, so we would invert that and is. "Why is the past tense not used?"
However, contractions have to stay together, so we'll invert "the past tense" with the whole contraction: "Why isn't the past tense used?"
See here for a bit more information Wikipedia on Contractions and Inversions.

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