Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Differences between “No” and “Not”

Kristine Fielding teaches ESOL at Lone Star College in Houston, TX.

The other day, in the middle of a lesson on the past perfect tense, I asked if there were any questions. A Spanish-speaking student raised her hand and asked what the difference between “no” and “not” is. First, I thought this would only take a moment to answer, then I realized that since I am a native English speaker, I had never given this much thought. So I wrote the following two sentences on the board and hoped we could figure it out together:

“I have no dogs.”

“I don’t have any dogs.”

As a class, we talked about what the two sentences had in common and what was different. It finally came down to what word or words followed “no” or “not.”

“No” is often used before a noun or adjective + noun to signify a zero amount. (Of course, “no” can also be used as a negative answer to a yes/no question, but this wasn’t the student’s question.)

“Not” is used with the verb, placement depends on which verb is used in the sentence.

By taking a moment to demonstrate how I would figure out the answer, I showed my students that they already knew enough to do a little analysis to find their own answers.

After we discussed the two sample sentences in simple present, I rewrote the sentences in simple past so students could discover that tense doesn’t affect the placement of “no” or “not.”

This digression led us down the path to question the reason we have multiple ways to essentially express the same idea. For this, we had to turn to emphasis. What does a speaker (or writer) want to stress? A speaker may stress different words or phrases, depending on what she is asked or the message she wants to give.

As a class, we wrote a question on the board that would fit any of our answers:

“Do you have dogs?”

We talked about a couple of scenarios where one answer to this question would fit better than the other. For example, if a neighbor complains that she hears barking coming from your apartment, you may want to stress that you have zero dogs. In that case, you would say, “I have no dogs.” This sentence leaves no doubt about the number of dogs living in your apartment.

However, if an acquaintance is making small talk and asks about your canine pets, “I don’t have any dogs” answers the person’s question without overstressing any detail while remaining congenial. Though the information is the same (0 dogs), this answer is a little softer because the word “not” doesn’t sound as harsh as “no.”

Then a student asked about the phrase “no problem” and why it is used to frequently. As you can imagine, this question led to a short discussion about American culture. When someone asks for help, we either don’t want to seem incompetent, so we say, “No problem,” as in “It is no problem for me since I already know how to do this,” or we don’t want the person asking to feel guilty about imposing on someone for help. In this case, “No problem” really means “It’s not an inconvenience for me to assist you.” But regardless of how “no problem” is used, the phrase still follows the rule of “no” coming before a noun.

Before we finished class, I asked students to practice answering simple questions using what we had learned. On the board, I wrote the following eight questions. Pairs of students took turns asking and answering the questions. Students were encouraged to practice the “no + noun” and “not + verb” patterns.

1. Do you have $20?
2. Do you have a pencil I can borrow?
3. How many brothers do you have?
4. How much money do you have right now in your wallet?
5. How many books did you read last week?
6. How much pizza did you eat yesterday?
7. Do you have a problem with getting up early?
8. Do you have an issue with our school’s tardy policy?

Though we didn’t get to finish our lesson on past tense verbs that day, we enjoyed our excursion through the Lands of “No” and “Not.” Besides discovering new grammar rules, students gained more confidence in their abilities to find their own answers. We also learned a little bit more about pragmatics, which is often overlooked in ESL/EFL classes due to time constraints. This was one of those golden opportunities that can never be written into lesson plans, and somehow moments like this never appear in any summative data, but this is what teaching is all about.

Comments

Comment from Brad Johnston
December 14, 2017 at 6:22 pm

I tried to send you an email at Kristine.Fielding@lonestar.edu
and Google quickly said the address could not be found.
Is there a better way, or should I just wait until the mailman gets back from vacation?
Brad Johnston 12-14-17

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