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Consider this sentence.

Americans consider themselves egalitarian and unsnobbish about accents, but they are full of notions about how not to speak.

What does "how not to speak" mean? I know the meaning of "how to speak"; it means asking about which method I should take to speak.

Does "how not to speak" mean trying finding a way to avoid saying something?

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3 Answers

There is an inherent ambiguity in the how not to expression. It can mean how to avoid mistakes when doing something or how to avoid doing it at all. Generally, the ambiguity is resolved by the context of the expression, so in the OP's example, it will be interpreted as the former. Whereas:

  • This article will advise you on how not to get pregnant

will be interpreted as the latter; namely, how to avoid getting pregnant at all, not how to avoid mistakes when getting pregant. Conversely:

  • This article will advise you how not to ask for a raise

will be interpreted as how to avoid mistakes when asking for a raise, not as how to avoid asking for a raise at all.

  • This article will advise you how not to react to provocation.

could have either of the two meanings.

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How not to speak means how people should not speak. For example, people should not speak too quickly.

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It tells us that they know what and they should not speak. Eg. they should not speak in a volume that is not audible to others, or not in a harsh tone, or not in a manner that hurts the other person.

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