I've heard this from a priest's homily, "Is he not the carpenter's son?"—taken from Mt. 13: 55-56 (King James Version).

I got confused whether the priest read the passage the wrong way—I was expecting, "Is not he the carpenter's son?" or the contracted one—but as I reviewed the readings, it was correct.

The English Standard Version (ESV), on the other hand, states the passage in the way the latter was constructed.

My point is, what is the difference between saying, "Is he not the carpenter's son?" and ""Is not he the carpenter's son?"? Is there any difference between the two?

  • 10
    See this and this. But note that while this example from the KJV is still grammatical, in general the KJV shouldn't be used as a guide for modern English - it was written 400 years ago in what was even then deliberately old-fashioned language, and English has changed a lot since then.
    – Stuart F
    Commented May 6 at 9:02
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    KingofSpades - you got it! Commented May 6 at 9:52
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    @KingofSpades Would you feel the difference between these implications? 1. (there is only one person in veiw or implied) "Is he not the carpenter's son?"-"No, he is the tailor's son"-"Hm, I've always thought him to be the carpenter's son". 2. (there are some persons in view) "Is not HE the carpenter's son? (which can be also said this way: "Isn't it HE who is the carpenter's son?)-"No, the carpenter's son is he who is standing to the left of HIM".
    – Eugene
    Commented May 6 at 11:06
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    @Lambie This is an English learners site. What part of that do you not understand?
    – JimmyJames
    Commented May 7 at 14:58
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    "Is not he" is extremely rare in current English, at least without contracting it. There are really only two choices that are used today: either: "Is he not?" or with the contraction "Isn't he?". Most bibles tend to use arcane/archaic language. The KJV is over 400 years old, and used language that was considered archaic even at the time it was written.
    – Billy Kerr
    Commented May 7 at 15:58

5 Answers 5


The KJV is over 400 years old. Because it is so well-known, contemporary speakers are able to understand much of it. Many of them have heard passages from it on a weekly basis for most of their lives, and some have heard its passages discussed, word by word, just as often. So it isn't as strange to them as some other texts from that period.

In contemporary conversational English we would ask

Isn't he the carpenter's son?

It is a contracted form of

Is not he the carpenter' son?

But the uncontracted form is rarely, if ever, heard nowadays.

When we do use the uncontracted form, the position of not comes before what is predicated of the subject:

Is he not the carpenter's son?

Depending on the intonation, that question could mean different things.

Is he not the carpenter's son?

Meaning: I was under the impression that his father is the carpenter. Am I wrong about that?

Is he not the carpenter's son?

Meaning: I thought it was he who was the carpenter's son. If he's not the one, which one is the carpenter's son?

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    "contemporary" simply means "belonging to the same time". In your second sentence "contemporary speakers" is a bit ambiguous: contemporaneous to what? It could mean "of the same time as this post" (i.e. 2024) or it could mean "of the same time as the KJV" (i.e. 1611). -- From context, the 2024 meaning appears to be intended, but I would suggest rephrasing to clarify.
    – R.M.
    Commented May 6 at 17:12
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    @R.M. Contemporary also has the definition of occurring in the current time. Depending on which dictionary you refer to it may even be the first definition. Regardless, it's obvious that contemporary is referring to the current time, the time in which "we would ask."
    – barbecue
    Commented May 6 at 17:24
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    @R.M. It cannot be referring to citizens of Tudor or early 17th c. England. Why? There's a clue in the sentence (not merely on the semantic level).
    – TimR
    Commented May 6 at 18:42
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    Also, "Is he not the carpenter's son?" meaning, Why the hell is he so clueless with a hammer :)
    – Fattie
    Commented May 7 at 14:37
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    @Fattie According to Papias of Hierapolis, the original Aramaic was closer to And you expect me to believe he's the carpenter's son? :-)
    – TimR
    Commented May 7 at 14:49

It is clear and certain that the statement would be

He is not the carpenter's son.

That is the only possible position for the word "not". If this is contracted there are two possibilities, the usual

He isn't the carpenter's son.


He's not the carpenter's son.

Both are valid, the latter is less common in many dialects.

To form the question, we would normally invert the subject and verb ie switching around "Is" and "He"

Is he not the carpenter's son?

But the contraction "Isn't" is so strong, that in modern English it is treated as if it were a "word" and we get

Isn't he the carpenter's son?

This is a development of grammar, with the adverb "not" becoming a clitic "n't" and now almost acting like a verb ending.


English is my second language but in my understanding in the first sentence the focus is on him and in the second sentence the focus is on the carpenter's (son) that's why i would answer like that:

"Is he not the carpenter's son?" "No, he is not, he is the farmer's son!"

"Is not he the carpenter's son?" "No, he is not, but Peter is the carpenter's son"

  • This native agrees. Commented May 7 at 18:43
  • To my native ears, "Is not he..." sounds really odd though. It's probably better to stick with the contraction for the second version (focusing on the carpenter's son), i.e. "Isn't he... " Commented May 7 at 22:36
  • According to @Vloxxity's profile, their first language is German. Note that in German, the word order "Ist er nicht...?" ("Is he not...?") is the dominant word order in question sentences. Commented May 8 at 7:12

Purely focusing on my modern interpretation of the two sentence structures they might convey slightly different focus.

"Not" is a strong word and it often puts emphasis/focus on whatever comes directly after it, especially if all you have is text and especially if it's not contracted. Shifting this focus can be used to convey slightly different meaning.

Is not he the carpenter's son?
Isn't he the carpenter's son? (weaker emphasis because of the contraction)

This phrasing feels like it puts more emphasis (of varying degree) on "he" and could potentially be rephrased as:

  • "This guy, he's the carpenters son, right?"
  • "Is it actually him that's the carpenter's son, not someone else?" (more so when using the non-contracted phrase)


Is he not the carpenter's son?

This phrasing feels like it puts more emphasis on the state of "(being) the carpenter's son" which could potentially be rephrased as:

  • "The carpenter's son, that's who he is, right?"
  • "Is he someone else's son, not the carpenter's?"
  • "You know it's true he's the carpenter's son, are you even questioning it?"
    • This is one of the more interesting uses! It's common in English to negatively question the obvious ("Aren't you hungry?"), or something you imply as "obvious", as a way to draw attention to that status. Putting a "not" in front of the status adds extra emphasis to it, strongly suggesting that the status should be obvious (Is/Are <noun-phrase> not <predicate-adjective>?).
      Consider the example: "Aren't you entertained?" vs "Are you not entertained!?" to which the expected answer is "Of course!".

If you guys have any other interpretations I'd love to hear them.

  • 1
    Your answer is the most limpid and comprehensive one.
    – Eugene
    Commented May 8 at 19:50
  • @Eugene Thank you! I'm just fascinated by the subtle nuances in how language is used to communicate, I might even argue that no two sentences convey the exact same meaning!
    – xtratic
    Commented May 9 at 15:15
  • That is why, adoring idioms and proverbs and phrasal verbs, I nevertheless tend to use words and phrases as one can use bricks mortaring them with grammar as concrete to put up an edifice of whatever shape he wills.
    – Eugene
    Commented May 10 at 8:52

Even though your source text of the King James Bible is written in early modern English, there's nothing wrong with "Is he not the carpenter's son?" in modern English. In fact, the modernised New King James Bible translates this as "Is this not the carpenter’s son?". Both follow the standard pattern of subject-verb-object, with the negation placed before the verb (the subject is "he," the verb is "is," and "not happy" is a predicate adjective phrase describing the subject "he"). This structure is commonly used in formal or literary contexts.

There are often different ways to negate a sentence - for example, following the reasoning I have already given there is nothing wrong with "is he not happy?", but "is he unhappy?" Sometimes one method may become more idiomatic in particular contexts through use.

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