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  1. He has been found "not guilty".
  2. He has not been found guilty.

In terms of daily life, both sentences mean the same.

Although the first sentence seems to be correct in terms of grammar, I often see this type of negative sentences (in legal texts) written in the form of the first sentence. I think it is because the expression "not guilty" is a legal term and writers of these sentences want to move the emphasis on the legal term, rather than making the sentence negative by means of the auxiliary verb (has not).

My question is: could I also use the second sentence structure to mean the same thing without causing change on the emphasis of the sentence?

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  • He was found not guilty [technical term]. [lots of text, then] He has not been found guilty due to A, B and C
    – Lambie
    Mar 29, 2021 at 16:02

2 Answers 2

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They do not mean the same thing! In one, the trial has concluded and the verdict given. In the other, the trial may not have even begun yet.

You are correct that "not guilty" is a fixed legal term. This is one of the reasons you can't move the "not" out of it and negate some other part of the sentence. In fact, this syntax would be rather odd with non-compounds: "I find her not helpless" sounds somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as though the negation were thought of too late to back up the sentence.

However, that doesn't account for the difference in meaning. Even if we change the adjective to a clause so it can be cleanly negated, the meaning changes based on what we negate:

It seemed that he didn't need the money.

It didn't seem that he needed the money.

The first one is a positive assertion. The speaker claims that they saw some indication, some sign, that the other guy didn't need the money. The second one is a negative assertion. The speaker claims that they saw no sign or indication of the other guy's need.

The sentences are identical only insofar as seeing a sign and not seeing the opposite sign are identical. There is overlap, but it's easy to think of situations where only one is true.

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  • "I find her not helpless" - this could, at least in British English, a way of emphasising how little help she needs (how she is capable, strong, and independent. "I found her not reticent" could mean "she shouted in my face and gave me a black eye". Mar 27, 2021 at 16:12
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    @MichaelHarvey True — if you emphasize not, it becomes surprisingly more idiomatic. Mar 27, 2021 at 16:21
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    There are contextual (pragmatic) considerations where they could mean the same thing.
    – Lambie
    Mar 29, 2021 at 15:59
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To add to Luke Sawczak's correct answer, the 2nd sentence has an implied "yet" tacked onto the end of it.

He has not been found guilty, yet.

At the beginning of a trial, the defendant hasn't been found guilty, nor have they been found not guilty, so "he has not been found guilty" can have a time element to it. Even without the "yet" tacked on, there's also an element of opinion to this, where people may be stating that they think the defendant is guilty and should be found guilty.

What makes this even more complicated is that the same sentence can also be used in defense, implying that the trial isn't over so don't assume the court will actually find the defendant guilty. This requires listening to vocal tone and other context. It comes down to two people saying the same thing and meaning two different things.

Adam: We all know he's guilty, it's just he has not been found guilty, yet.

Bob: You're right, Adam, he has not been found guilty yet, so don't go stringing him up just yet.

Legal Term

He has been found "not guilty".

Using the legal term "not guilty" specifies that the court has made a decision and the decision is "not guilty". The time element to this sentence states that it's a fact, rather than an opinion.

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