Not Good or No Good?

By Maeve Maddox

Deborah H. has a question about one of my recent post titles:

Maeve, the title on today’s DWT reminds me of a question that I have wanted to ask for a long time: How do I choose between “no” and “not?” You wrote, “Not Winning a Contest Doesn’t Mean Your Writing is No Good.” I would have written “not good.” Is there a rule for using “no” and “not?”

The choice between saying “not good” and “no good” has more to do connotation than with grammar rules.

I could have said “not good” in that title, but that’s not what I meant. I wanted to speak to the feelings of despair that many of us feel when a ms is returned or a query rejected:

OMG I’m wasting my time! My work must be worthless!

Much published writing is not good, but other factors keep it from being absolutely no good. Often the content of an article is so much in demand that people will buy it even if it’s badly written.

“Not good” is not as judgmental as “no good.” Something that’s “not good” may still have redeeming qualities or can be made better. Something that’s “no good” is useless for its intended purpose. For example:

This car is not good, but it gets me to work.
That car is no good; it doesn’t run at all.

Here’s a headline from the New Jersey Star-Ledger that further illustrates the choice between no good and not good:

TV no good for babies, study shows. Not bad, either

The gist of the story by Carrie Stetler is that “educational” TV programming does not increase intelligence in very young children, but that permitting them to watch it does not harm them.

In this context, “no good” means “doesn’t do any good.” The educational programs don’t work the way they are designed to. “Not bad,” on the other hand, means “not harmful.”

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9 Responses to “Not Good or No Good?”

  • Deborah

    Maeve—thank you so much. Your explanation makes perfect sense.

  • PreciseEdit

    Very interesting post, Maeve.

    I wonder if . . .

    Not good: “not” is describing the level of goodness, i.e., “not” is modifying “good.” [Ex: The movie is very good, good, somewhat good, not good.]

    No good: “no good” is a quality in itself, in which “good” is one type of quality and “no good” is another, as if the expression “no good” works as a single, modifying linguistic unit. [Ex: The movie is great, interesting, boring, bad, not good.]

    I’m interested in reading you thoughts and other’s.

  • PreciseEdit

    Um . . . “your thoughts”

    [My “hit list” of things to check for includes making sure the “r” is on “your.” Now, where did I put my hit list?]

  • Easton Miller

    My mind stumbled over your header, Maeve, when it was first posted. I suppose it wouldn’t have been as dramatic if you had written instead:

    “Losing a Contest Doesn’t Mean Your Writing is Poor”

    Personally, I think it would have been clearer and removed the “Huh?” factor, but we’d have missed out on the interesting discussion.

  • Brad K.

    I think of “not good” as a failed pass-fail grade. Not good enough, where “enough” is implied.

    “No good” would be “nothing good or useful about it”.

    The “TV no good..” I would certainly have used “TV not good” for two reasons. The “Not bad” cries for a balancing “not good” in the first sentence, almost like matching tenses or plural usage. The other reason is that it makes a simple comparison and gives a simple result – that TV isn’t going to improve children’s IQ. The article doesn’t make a blanket statement that there is nothing on TV that is beneficial to a child.

    (IMO, the short story segments and especially the bright, loud, intentionally disruptive commercial ads destroy concentration and are likely drivers for ADHD. On the other hand, the child is exposed to a more universal speaking dialect, music, and concepts that would otherwise be missing from many homes. Not to mention the way TV can be used to entertain the kid and give parents a break. Of course, that reduces the home skills that parents teach kids, reduces time kids are with their parents, learning skills, values, beliefs, appropriate behavior and patience.)

  • Nils

    … and there’s another subtlety lurking about in denial:

    This is not a smoking area;
    This is no smoking area;
    This is a no smoking area;
    This is a no-smoking area;
    This is a non-smoking area (which merits a grin).

    They’re all out there. So who’s politely afraid of no, not and non?

  • `¡™£¢∞§¶•ªº–≠œ∑´®†¥¨ˆøπ“‘«åß∂ƒ©˙∆˚¬…æΩ≈ç√∫˜µ≤≥÷

    I think he didn’t get permission to say hi.
    thats just what i think 🙂

  • `¡™£¢∞§¶•ªº–≠œ∑´®†¥¨ˆøπ“‘«åß∂ƒ©˙∆˚¬…æΩ≈ç√∫˜µ≤≥÷

    He didnt get permission to say anything so why’d he do it?

  • Lauren

    In this article “ms” (manuscript) should be “MS.”

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