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Consider the following sentences:

  1. Try not to be alarmed if a rule doesn’t seem to work for a specific sentence.
  2. Try not to be alarmed if a rule seems not to work for a specific sentence.

Is there a difference in meaning between "does not seem to work" and "seems not to work"?

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Related: Order of “not” with infinitive, which covers another choice, "to not work" vs. "not to work". – RegDwigнt Apr 30 '12 at 17:27
up vote 11 down vote accepted

No, there is no difference.

Seem is a verb that governs infinitive complements and allows Negative-Raising. That means that negation in the infinitive complement of seem, or want, or other Neg-Raising verbs, as in

  • The rule seems not to work.           [ = ... to not work]
  • He wants me not to go tomorrow. [ = ... to not go tomorrow.]

can also appear, instead, in the matrix clause with seem or want

  • The rule doesn't seem to work.
  • He doesn't want me to go tomorrow.

without a change in meaning.

This is not true of most predicates, which don't allow Neg-Raising. (Be) Easy, for instance, is a more normal predicate; the two sentences below do not mean the same thing.

  • It's easy for him not to smile.
  • It's not easy for him to smile.

Edit: Pursuant to RegDwight's comment above on split infinitives, I should mention that both the unsplit variant not to smile and the split variant to not smile are in the complement clause, i.e, not Neg-Raised -- though they are likewise equivalent in grammaticality and meaning. Either form can be regarded as the "source" of the Neg-Raised not easy to smile

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