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Which of the following is correct: may not have or may have not? For example, which sentence should one write?

They may not have apples.

They may have not apples.

  • The proposed edit for they to those is not a good proposal. Please do not accept edits that make such changes. – oerkelens May 19 '14 at 11:51
  • Yes, Thanks, I did not notice that. – InGeometry May 19 '14 at 11:54
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    "They may not have apples" = "They may have no apples." But consider "They may not have bought apples" = "They may have not bought apples," here it works. – Kris May 19 '14 at 13:57
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The transposition of 'have' and 'not' is acceptable when 'have' is an auxiliary verb forming the perfect tense with the past participle of another, main verb.

     They may not have eaten the apples.

     They may have not eaten the apples.

Both these sentences are correct.

However, if 'have' is used to indicate possession of a noun object (in this case 'apples'), then you cannot transpose 'have' and 'not'.

'They may not have apples' is correct, whereas 'they may have not apples' is incorrect.

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Normally, when you use not to form a negation, the word not is placed right after the declined part of the verb (that is, the part of the verb that changes if you change the subject). In your sentence, that is may, so the correct sentence is:

They may not have apples.

Another example:

I do not have a book.

Here, do is the part of the verb that changes with the subject; see what happens with "he" instead of "I": "He does not have a book.

So, not comes right after do, not after have.

There are situations where "They may have not apples" would be a correct phrase, but then the sentence changes a lot:

They may have not apples, but pears.

This is kind of convoluted, possibly poetic, and certainly not the standard way of saying:

They may have pears instead of apples.

So in general, always go for the they may not have apples version!

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Maybe you guys were just goofing and this is all a big joke on me but...

THEY MIGHT NOT HAVE APPLES. THEY MIGHT NOT HAVE APPLES. **THEY MIGHT NOT HAVE APPLES. ***THEY MIGHT NOT HAVE APPLES.*****

"They MAY not have apples" is an unacceptable substitution of the permissory modal in this case. "They may not have apples" should be used to communicate the equivalent of "They are not permitted to have apples."

This sort of thing is done quite regularly with several of the modals (e.g. "CAN I go to the bathroom?") but I find it creates unnecessary ambiguity and overlap of expression.

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They may not have apples. It means there's no option that they have apples. We must have a certain reason to think so (maybe they are too poor). Here, we sure of they have not apples.

They may have not apples. There's no reason to think they may not have apples but they probably are out of apples. Here, we just suppose.

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    No. They may not have apples means there is a possibility that they don't have apples. *They may have not apples is ungrammatical. In negating a verb phrase, not goes after the first auxiliary verb, or after do if there isn't any auxiliary verb. – John Lawler May 19 '14 at 14:19
  • In some cases MAY HAVE NOT is ok since it means they may have something excluding apples (of course, putting grammar aside). – Damian Czapiewski May 19 '14 at 17:41
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    "In some cases", virtually anything is ok. The trick is getting the rule that works in every case with all exceptions categorized. That rule is the one I gave, which bears repeating: In negating a verb phrase, not goes after the first auxiliary verb, or after do if there isn't any auxiliary verb. – John Lawler May 19 '14 at 17:44

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