Little John keeps borrowing Bob's colored pencils but he's too playful to remember to give them back. Bob's mom is upset and talks to John's about it. John's mom would say something along the lines of either

He just borrows them, not steal.


He just borrows them, not steals.

Which one is grammatically correct? Why?

I know it's feasible (and probably safer) not to omit anything and go with two full sentences. On the other hand, sometimes we need to emphasize the contrast between the two verbs, or need to be simply more concise. Consider another example, in the legal sense of the verbs, without omission of the second object:

Your argument excuses his actions, not justify / justifies them.

If I'm honest, the latter option seems clunky, but then how would we denote subject-verb agreement, and why wouldn't a simple omission of subject (without affecting the grammar of the rest) work?

3 Answers 3


It would be much more idiomatic to use do to construct these contradictory clauses:

He just borrows them, he doesn't steal them.

Your argument excuses his actions, it doesn't justify them.

In fact, if you're learning English you'll want to become conversant with how thoroughly do support is entwined in the language. Many normal features of other languages will involve do in English.

  • What about changing the part after comma to a progressive aspect?" ...excuses his action, not justifying them"? Is it the same? I mean should it be "it's not justifying them"?
    – Cardinal
    May 18, 2019 at 15:34
  • That wouldn't mean the same thing.
    – Robusto
    May 18, 2019 at 17:04
  • Thanks, but would you explain a little bit?
    – Cardinal
    May 18, 2019 at 20:06
  • It would be an awkward construction, which in the best case would be construed as omitting a word: "Your argument excuses his actions while not justifying them."
    – Robusto
    May 18, 2019 at 20:22

I don't think you can do this, because "not steals them" would be an ellipsised version of "He not steals them", which is not grammatical in current English.

  • That would be "elided". I don't think that "ellipsised" is a word.
    – David Siegel
    May 18, 2019 at 19:53

If you aree going to muse this form, you should say:

He just borrows them, not steals.

The verb form matches that in "He steals them" the implied sentence which is being contradicted.

I hear this kind of comparison reasonably frequently from native speakers. It is probably technically ungrammatical, but it is in fact in common use, and would be understood. I agree with Robusto that

He just borrows them, he doesn't steal them.

is clearer and better, but one must learn to understand English as it is actually used.

  • You may hear this spoken, but I have never seen it written before. I'm not entirely sure it's one sentence, either.
    – Kevin
    May 18, 2019 at 18:33

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