Avva posts a question that I have occasionally wondered about: under what conditions are the negations it isn’t and it’s not used? There must have been studies done on this; speakers’ intuition is clearly useless here. The only distinction that occurs to me is that the former is more emphatic, requiring a separation of syllables and at least a minuscule stress on it (we no longer say ’tisn’t as our forefathers did), whereas it’s not can be reduced to a single syllable and muttered if need be (“T’s not fair!”).
Update (March 2010): There’s a paper (pdf) on this topic, “It’s not or isn’t it? Using large corpora to determine the influences on contraction strategies” (Language Variation and Change, 14 (2002), 79–118) by Malcah Yaeger-Dror, Lauren Hall-Lew, and Sharon Deckert. The abstract:

In analyzing not-negation variation in English it becomes clear that specific strategies are used for prosodic emphasis and reduction of not in different social situations, and that contraction strategies vary independently of prosodic reduction. This article focuses on the factors influencing contraction strategies that are clearly dialect related and attempts to tease out those factors that are related to register and speaker stance. First, we review background information critical to an adequate analysis of not-negation and not-contraction. We then describe the corpora chosen for the present study, the research methods employed in the analysis, and the results of the analysis. The variable under analysis is the choice between uncontracted and not-contracted forms and between not-contracted and Aux-contracted forms in well-formed declarative sentences, for verbs which permit both. We end with some suggestions for corpus composition that will enable meaningful comparisons between social situations and between speakers, or characters, within one corpus. As researchers we can assure that future corpora will permit increasingly inclusive and interesting comparative studies; we close with some suggestions for those who wish to carry out studies.

Thanks, Doug!


  1. I wonder if anything has been done on this with corpus linguistics?
    Subjectively–which, as you note, may not be reliable here at all–I would think that it’s not would be used where emphasis is placed on the negation. One can’t place emphatic stress on a not that isn’t there, except in contracted form, be we can, of course, place such stress on the not of the full form.
    Like you, I don’t put my faith in speaker’s subjective intutions at times like these, yet like other linguists, I have asked for speakers’ intuitive responses all the time. Instead, we need to work with cognitive scientists and create experiments where we might be able to zero in on the differences between the contracted and full forms, without respondents needing to speculate about the matter, but, rather, are responding based on something presumably “real” psycholinguistically. And if that approach isn’t reiable, I don’t know what else would be! 🙂

  2. Don’t forget ’tisn’t, for the hyperLaconic.

  3. Sometimes I go back and forth several times when revising, so if you get an answer, be sure to tell me! (I think of “It’s not” as slightly more formal and also more emphatic. Or do I?)
    I have the same problem with “I’m asleep” and “I’m sleeping”. There seems to be a difference, but I have no idea what it is.
    I also just realized that I’ve been misspelling “similar” as “similiar” for decade, possibly by analogy with “peculiar” even though the sounds are different.

  4. Alex Smaliy says:

    An obvious (and perhaps trivial) point is that in it isn’t it is the is that is getting negated, while in it’s not the not belongs to whatever constituent follows (which may be omitted for brevity). This can be explored with negative and negative polarity items:
    It is somewhere.
    *It isn’t somewhere.
    ?It’s not somewhere, it’s… (as part of a contrastive sentence)
    It isn’t anywhere.
    ??It’s not anywhere.
    It’s nowhere.
    Feel free to correct my (highly suspect) correctness judgments.

  5. Noetica says:

    I also just realized that I’ve been misspelling “similar” as “similiar” for decade, possibly by analogy with “peculiar” even though the sounds are different.
    And I have observed that some people say “peculiarlarly”, most likely because they assimiliate it in some way to “particularly”. Same syllable count (though this may depend on how you reckon it)?

  6. John Kozak says:

    “’tisn’t” is fine in British English.

  7. Really? People actually say “’tisn’t” in ordinary speech? You learn something every day.

  8. Some English also say ‘tint’ to mean the same.
    Other slight variations are ‘int it’, and the now everwhere (but whelped in London) ‘innit’.
    Were he to redo his famous lines today, Michael Caine would say: ‘You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off, innit.’

  9. Tim May says:

    I don’t doubt that there are varieties of British English in which “’tisn’t” is normal, but I don’t say it. At least, I don’t think I do.

  10. I’d only use “‘Tisn’t” as a rejoinder myself, in the same slightly humorous class as “Is not” and “Shan’t”. We’re quoting a bit of old-fashioned book speech perhaps.
    However, something is happening to the grammar in England. Questions like “Is it not?” are common: for me this can only be “Isn’t it?”. This is only in isolation — not with a predicate following, and not as tag questions. It’s quite normal in standard speech now.

  11. M: An argument isn’t just contradiction.
    A: It can be.
    M: No it can’t. An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.
    A: No it isn’t.
    M: Yes it is! It’s not just contradiction.
    A: Look, if I argue with you, I must take up a contrary position.
    M: Yes, but that’s not just saying ‘No it isn’t.’
    A: Yes it is!
    M: No it isn’t!
    (Monty Python)

  12. speedwell says:

    My guy points out that I frequently use “It’s not anywhere” this way when I’m frustrated that I can’t find something: “It’s not on the couch where I left it. It’s not in the bathroom. I looked in the car and it’s not there. It’s just not anywhere!”

  13. Martin M. says:

    A similar situation seems to be “I’ve not” and “I haven’t”. The former isn’t particularly standard in the varieties of American English I know, and is, I suspect, one of the several British English constructions I’ve adopted into my mutt idiolect, but sometimes it just seems to fit a situation so much better! I can’t express why.
    Also, possibly related, I don’t say “I’ve an idea” very often, but say “I’ve no idea” regularly.

  14. Huh. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an American say “I’ve not”; I would have guessed it was pure Brit. You learn something every day.

  15. “‘T’s not fair” is commonly heard, but in British English, cartoonist Posy Simmonds has employed an even smaller contraction, “‘S’not fair”, complete with built-in whine. I’d just as soon not hear that any time soon, but it’s the next logical step, I suppose. (I can’t give a citation for the usage, but it’s in one of her collections, I believe either “Very Posy” or “Mustn’t Grumble”.)

  16. Martin M. says:

    I’ve lived in America since I was two, but was born in London and both my parents are British. So as I say, mine is a very confused little idiolect.

  17. altolinguistic says:

    I say ”t’isn’t’ too – usually as a rejoinder to my boyfriend/parents if I am feeling petulant/juvenile and/or I know I’m in the wrong, but still want to contradict them (not that that ever happens!).

  18. I apologize for the length of this, but it just so happened that I had wondered, and written, about this topic long before I stumbled across this forum this morning. Here’s what I concluded:
    In the twelfth grade, I stayed after class one afternoon for an important conversation with my English teacher.
    (Not to get sidetracked again, but we’re not supposed to call them English teachers anymore, because, after all, they could be Venezuelan or something. They are now “Teachers of English,” thank you very much.)
    I asked her, because I respected her immensely and was certain she would know: what are the practical differences between the applications of the phrases “It isn’t” and “It’s not”?
    in return, I got a puzzled expression from this unignorably brilliant former nun, along with a request for clarification: “Well, grammatically they’re the same, if that’s what you mean. …What do you mean?”
    I shifted around on the smooth formica of the desk seat. “I know they’re equivalent,” I replied. “What I mean is, they’re a little bit different, aren’t they? And isn’t there any rule for applying one instead of the other?”
    Now, I don’t know what they teach you in Teacher of English School, specifically, or what other stuff you pick up along the way, but I get the impression that hair-splitting seventeen-year-olds are not covered in the curriculum. Fortunately, she was fascinated – she was good at that – and she prompted me to explain my hunch in more detail.
    “Look,” I said, “I know they mean the same thing, but there have to be times you’d use one and times you’d use the other one. Sometimes, you know, it just ‘isn’t,’ and sometimes it’s ‘not.’ *You* know everything about this language, so, you know … how do you … know?”
    Mrs. Strange looked at me with her signature look, an unblinking slight smile I always took as a mixture of pride, amusement and recognition. I’ve never forgotten it.
    “Neither is wrong in either setting,” she explained, pausing for emphasis the way she did. “I think you’ll have to decide on a case-by-case basis.”
    I was disappointed.
    I wanted an answer, a definitive answer, just like I wanted for everything else in my life at the time.
    But Mrs. Strange was explaining, in her patient and compassionate way, that it wasn’t coming. It – English, life, and everything else – really is as complicated and uncertain as I was afraid it was.
    In the years since graduating, I’ve spent many hours agonizing over ostensibly equivalent turns of phrase like “isn’t” versus “it’s not” time and time again. And I’ve carefully considered countless other seemingly trivial matters that become as important as you make them.
    And I have of course realized, again and again, that there are no shortcuts, no ways to make one decision and be done with it. I’ve realized she was right.
    Of course she was right.

  19. No, she just didn’t know the answer but was good at obfuscating that fact to keep her students from losing faith in her. There are two different forms, there are likely to be conditions under which one or the other is used, we just don’t know what they are. Her attitude is as if you were to ask a science teacher “how come sometimes ice melts and sometimes it evaporates?” and he said “Well, it happens on a case-by-case basis.” That’s not an answer.
    I’d still love to know if any linguistic studies have been done on this.

  20. My elementary English Language teacher chastised anyone who said ‘it’s snot’. I therefore always use ‘it isn’t’

  21. For me, and I suspect most Americans, “Is not!” is childish rather than old-fashioned; it wants (and gets) the retort “Is too!” or “Is so!”

    I remember a Brit (identity forgotten) musing on the asymmetry in children’s British English: if someone accuses you of being something bad, you can deny it with “I am not!” (and so can Americans), but if someone accuses you of not being something good, you have no reply except the American-marked “I am so/too!”

  22. marie-lucie says:

    I tend to say “it’s not” and to immediately regret that I did not say “it isn’t” (which I do use also). I don’t remember anyone objecting, or even commenting. I think this habit must date from some of my earliest lessons in English. I had a very good teacher, who could actually speak fluent English, but (probably according to the curriculum) we actually learned things like “Do you not …?” before we learned “Don’t you …?”

  23. Dunno about the other British, but the reply in English English would be “Yes, I am!”

    Has anyone noticed the recent usage, at least in British English, of ’tis for “it is”? I thought of it as archaic, but recently it’s been cropping up a lot, especially on Facebook. I’ve even had an exceptionally fluent German use it as a reply to a question. I haven’t noticed Americans saying ’tis, but perhaps they are and I’m the only native English speaker left who’s not using it.

  24. Marie-Lucie, Scots & northern English people often use “Do you not …?” instead of “Don’t you …?”

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