1

In the phrase below may I say:

It's easy for you who have spent your whole life not in a filthy hovel, as I have, to think that the world is a wonderful place.

as an alternative to

It's easy for you who have not spent you whole life in a filthy hovel...

Also, may I say:

After ten minutes of conversation anyone can see that she spent her life not in a catholic school for girls.

instead of

After ten minutes of conversation anyone can see that she didn't spend her life...

2

Your suggestions sound awkward because by placing "not" before a prepositional phrase, you imply that it modifies that phrase. However, a reader would then expect to get the alternative. In other words, this is unusual:

It's easy for you who have spent your whole life not in a filthy hovel, as I have, to think that the world is a wonderful place.

but this is fine:

It's easy for you who have spent your whole life not in a filthy hovel, as I have, but in a luxurious mansion to think that the world is a wonderful place.

Similarly, this is unusual:

After ten minutes of conversation anyone can see that she spent her life not in a Catholic school for girls.

but this is fine:

After ten minutes of conversation anyone can see that she spent her life not in a Catholic school for girls but in a co-ed public school.

(I capitalized "Catholic" because I don't think that you meant "catholic", which generally has a different meaning.)

The second version of each sentence that you provided is fine, because "not" is adjacent to the verb that it modifies.

5
  • Hi, Marcin, thanks a million for taking the time to help me on this subject. Before posting my question here I had made some researches on the use of this type of grammatical construction and as you said, all the results I found presented some kind of alternative. But I found one example in which no alternative was used, so I was in doubt if it was always necessary or could be, depending on the context, omitted.
    – Itamar
    Jan 13 at 3:44
  • Here's the example I'm talking about: "My grandchildren visited on a rainy day so we decided to make porcupines! They hand sawed the ‘body’ from a 2×4. Then they sanded forever. When attention waned, it was time to start nailing... (I deleted part of the text here because it's too long). Thanks for the great idea, so appropriate for this age, and for a grandpa that spent his life NOT in a workshop!" So, as you can see, no alternative presented. And that was what was puzzling me.
    – Itamar
    Jan 13 at 3:53
  • 1
    Of course it is easily understood, this seems to be a casual usage, and there is no reasonable alternative that could be included. However, in more formal contexts, it would be more common to write: ". . . and for a grandpa that did NOT spend his life in a workshop!" Jan 13 at 4:04
  • 1
    BTW, I'm from the U.S. Northeast. It's possible that usage differs elsewhere, though I'm not aware of any regional variation. Jan 13 at 4:06
  • 1
    Thank you very much, your explanations were great and managed to solve all my doubts. I'll be able to insert this type of construction into my vocabulary with confidence.
    – Itamar
    Jan 13 at 4:20
2

It's probably technically grammatically correct, but something that a fluent speaker would be very unlikely to say.

One might use such wording if you were trying to make a careful distinction. If you say, "You haven't spent your whole life in a filthy hovel", that COULD mean the person has spent part of his life in a filthy hovel, he just hasn't spent his whole life in such a hovel. But "You have spent your whole life not in a filthy hovel" can only mean that he has never lived in a filthy hovel.

Still, a fluent speaker would be more likely to say, "You have never lived in a filthy hovel".

2
  • Hi, thanks a lot for the great explanation. May you make any comments about the second phrase where I don't use the expression "whole life", just "life"? Does it make any difference? I'm also trying to sound a bit ironic or sarcastic on that one.
    – Itamar
    Jan 12 at 21:38
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    "didn't spend her life" and "didn't spend her whole life" mean the same thing. Adding "whole" adds emphasis. Both are fine. I wouldn't say "spent her life not in ..." for the same reasons that I wouldn't say "your life not in a filthy hovel". It could come across as literal or ironic depending on context. "She doesn't know a lot about Catholic religious teaching. She didn't spend her life in a Catholic school" would sound literal. "She's pretty wild, getting drunk and using drugs and sleeping around. Obviously she didn't spend her life in a Catholic school for girls" would sound ironic.
    – Jay
    Jan 13 at 18:58

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