"Needs not be absolute but can also be instrumental."


It is a sentence from p. 593 of Journal of Economic Psychology, v. 19, No. 5. Within my English knowledge, I would write it as "Needs can not only be absolute but can also be instrumental." Could anyone tell me why the author write it as the form?

asked Jan 28 '13 at 11:11 Jen-Chang Liu New member

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Your question is a good one.  Was Needs not be absolute but can also be instrumental the complete sentence?  If so, you are right that it is not correct.  Please double-check, and if possible, please post the sentence before and the sentence after it to give us more information.


Your revision sounds like it could be correct, depending on the context. Please give us some more information and hopefully we can help you further.

link answered Jan 28 '13 at 11:46 Shawn Mooney Expert

Thank you for your replying. The context is as follows.

The basic premise is complicated by other considerations. Needs not be absolute but can also be instrumental. Hence a Rolls-Royce can be an instrumental necessity; it is a means of demonstrating municipal dignity or company prosperity or personal status. The perception of what is necessity and what is luxury does vary from society to society despite the apparently constant nature of basic human needs.

Jen-Chang LiuJan 29 '13 at 15:19

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Thanks for quoting more from the article, Jen-Chang.  Now that I have read it and thought about what the author was probably trying to say, I think your suggested correction, Needs can not only be absolute but can also be instrumental is a pretty good one, and certainly is more understandable. 


There are two problems with it, I think.


The first one is that the not only....but also correlative structure here means "absolute and instrumental", and as far as I can understand the academic argument being made in this text, the meaning should be "absolute or instrumental".   Not both at the same time; either/or.  I think some readers would grasp the or meaning because of the use of can as a modal verb to mean possibility, but the fact that I have struggled to comprehend whether your rewrite means and or or for quite some time today means that it would probably confuse other readers (or else I am just plain stupid).


Secondly, it is also confusing to have can followed by not only be because the reader must pause to consider the connection between them: can not only be does not have the same meaning as cannot only be and again, anything like this that slows down or impairs a reader's comprehension should be reworded.


Luckily, the either/or meaning can be much more simply stated: 


Not all needs are absolute; some are instrumental.


I hope this helps.

link answered Jan 31 '13 at 04:28 Shawn Mooney Expert

I totally agree with your comments.Based on your argument, I doubt that the author had intended to write"Needs can be absolute but can also be instrumental.", but typographically incorrectly wrote "can" as "not". I will appreciate any comment from you on my concept or on my writing. Thank you again.

Jen-Chang LiuJan 31 '13 at 17:34

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