1. "Is not he calling me?"

  2. "Isn't he calling me?"

Why is #1 not correct while #2 is correct?

And what about the below:

  1. "Is he not calling me?"

Does #3 always mean the exact same thing as #2 "Isn't he calling me?"

  • It would have to be "is he not calling me" - the abbreviation prevents that word order, but is the common usage. I think the long form is too clumsy, and it also subtly changes the meaning - but haven't put this as an answer as I'm sure there must be a more technical reason! It is a good question though! – Mark Williams Dec 14 '14 at 23:13

When we make yes/no questions in English, we usually invert the subject and the auxiliary verb. The auxiliary verb and the subject change places. In the sentence:

  • He is calling me.

The subject is he and the auxiliary is is. If we make a normal yes/no question, he and is change places like this:

  • Is he calling me?

Notice that we cannot move the words calling me. There is no special reason to move these words.

We have the same situation if we have a normal negative sentence:

  • He is not calling me.

Again, we can make a yes/no question. We can invert the subject he and the auxiliary is. We do not move the other words:

  • Is he not calling me?

Notice that there is no special reason to move any of these words: not or calling or me. We don't have a special reason to move the word not in this example.

However, we can have a different version of the negative sentence. We can contract the auxiliary is and the negative word not. This gives us the contraction isn't:

  • He isn't calling me.

This time, when we invert the subject and the auxiliary, the whole contraction isn't will invert with the subject. The auxiliary, is, will pull the n't section with it:

  • Isn't he calling me.

We can only move n't here because it is attached to is. The word not can only move to a new position because it is joined to is! If we do move it, it will sound very strange.

Hope this is helpful!

Why would we use Is he not calling me?

This question-form does not appear in the Original Poster's question. This form is likely to be used when the speaker expected that 'he' was going to call, but later finds out that he isn't. It is probably a 'checking' question. The speaker is checking that he isn't calling. Because of this, the speaker will give the word not contrastive stress. We can do this more emphatically if the word not is separated from the auxiliary.

  • Is he not calling?
  • 1
    Is "Isn't he calling me?" the negation of "Is he calling me?" Since the first has a matrix negation, then that would mean the first means the opposite of the second (similar to how "He isn't calling me" is the negation of "He is calling me"), wouldn't it? :D – F.E. Dec 15 '14 at 6:30
  • 1
    This place is becoming as bad as EL&U: my comments getting deleted, SWRs, too many closed threads. I'll try to put remember some of them. -- One was that my use of "glom" was similar to what was in the dictionary, somewhat. Another that catenative verb with "NP and infinitive" has NP always as matrix object, though the NP by itself might not be a semantic argument of matrix verb. (#1) – F.E. Dec 16 '14 at 14:41
  • 1
    Info related to "preposition who(m)" as in that EL&U thread: CGEL page 465-6 in "(d) Object of a preceding preposition", and some interesting stuff in Change in Contemporary English (Leech, Hundt, Mair, Smith) pages 13-16 with #14 about a lapidary inscription on a tombstone (section 1.2). But I cherry pick from that book because it has the known weaknesses of too small of corpuses and range of only 30 years, which makes it very vulnerable to the effects of fads on one or both ends. And there are errors in it, due to not being vetted adequately, some parts not vetted at all. – F.E. Dec 16 '14 at 14:52
  • 1
    Oh, another tidbit about catenative: matrix "see" has both kinds of semantic argument (of NP), where the NP alone is argument or else where NP is combined with infinitival to become a matrix argument. This discussed in CGEL pages 1236-7. – F.E. Dec 16 '14 at 14:56
  • 1
    This will probably make you happy: I now do not consider "concealed passive" to be a syntactical passive. I consider it to be a "semantic-passive". To be a passive, it has to have a past-participle verb form in it (imo). -- Also, early next year, I'll be looking over a (big) book on de-generative, er, generative grammar. Oh, joy. :( – F.E. Dec 16 '14 at 15:00

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