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"I promise [pause] not to do it"

seems to me equivalent to

"I promise I won't do it".

However,

"I promise not [pause] to do it"

seems to me equivalent to

"I do not promise I will do it" (i.e. I cannot guarantee I will do it, maybe I will do it)

Is there a double meaning here? If so, all promises constructed that way ("I promise not to") may be interpreted as deceitful, treacherous, untrustworthy?

EDIT Just to clarify. The reason I am asking is that I saw a movie where the guy said "I promise not [pause] to kill X" and then he asked someone else to do it for him, thus violating the spirit of his promise (i.e. he wouldn't have X killed), but not the letter because he didn't actually do it himself. My impression, while I was watching the movie, was that the pause was deliberate, the guy was actually trying to hide a lie in his promise. This behaviour is not unheard of: in Ancient Greece oracles would pronounce obscure prophecies such that whatever happened the oracle would have been seen as having guessed. My question is about the grammatical structure of a sentence starting with "I promise not to" and the possibility to use it, consciously, to hide one's intentions.

3 Answers 3

4

No.

In Modern English, negation of the main clause requires subject/auxiliary inversion, with DO- support if no auxiliary is present; the only exception is copulation with BE. I VERB not has not been employed to express denial of I VERB since the 17th century, except in consciously archaizing literary contexts; in other contexts it will not bear the interpretation you suggest.

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  • Then again, if you intend to be duplicitous, devious, like an ancient oracle, "Jesuitical" in Jon Hanna's words, then you can use a "biblical" tone, a consciously archaizing tone, and hide a lie in your promise. From a grammatical point of view, can that construction - "I promise not to …" - be used for the purpose? Jun 11, 2014 at 21:03
  • @randomatlabuser Sure. You can also cross your fingers behind your back. They're about equally effective. Jun 11, 2014 at 21:16
  • Equally effective, sure, but one is linguistic, the other is gestural. My question is about the grammatical structure of a sentence. It would be interesting to know if there are antecedents. Jun 11, 2014 at 22:03
  • @randomatlabuser Again, no, not in ModE. You might have gotten away with it in an EME fairy tale, but today? Would you accept it? Jun 11, 2014 at 22:59
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Pretty much, no.

Okay, "I promise not" does as a clause on its own mean "I do not promise". This is called "simple negation", and is today unusual.

There was a fad for a stressed form of negation that is superficially similar, being used sarcastically in the late 80s through to the 90s, associated in particular with the television show Wayne's World where all the linguistic games they played showed great erudition and imagination—NOT! This recent variant though insists on great vocal or typographic stress being put on the word not which never makes it irritating—NOT!

The style goes back further than that fad, and indeed Wayne and Garth's antecedents include George Eliot. Here the emphasis would be milder, but there was still a clearly stress separation.

Note however that the not follows a whole clause or sentence, and is quite strongly emphasised.

Even with Early Modern English use of "I promise not", one would avoid ambiguity, either using the more modern negative "I do not promise" or making the second clause clearer, "I promise I won't do that".

And if you failed to do so, you would of course be speaking to someone else who spoke Early Modern English, so if the wording, along with stress and context, didn't make a clear statement they might ask you to rephrase. And if you refused, they'd accuse you of being Jesuitical in your promises—this being a time when Jesuitical would be a favoured term for a devious lie hidden in a promise.

Today, you can only really use the simple negative on its own ("I promise not.") or with a flourish ("I promise not!") and even then it'd be a matter of using the unusual for effect.

The normal way to negate is to add not after the first auxiliary. If there is no such auxiliary, you add one; "I do not promise".

And as such, "I promise not to do it" unambiguously means "I promise that I will not do it".

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  • Surely you can see a difference between "I promise not to poke you in the eye" and "I do not promise to poke you in the eye."
    – Robusto
    Jun 11, 2014 at 13:55
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    Maybe worth adding that the pause mentioned in the OP would only serve to make it sound like the speaker is deliberately keeping the listener guessing (as to what it is that they're promising not to do).
    – Rupe
    Jun 11, 2014 at 13:55
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    @Robusto I think that was Jon's point, he's saying that "I do not promise.." is a preferable alternative to the archaic sense of "I promise not".
    – Rupe
    Jun 11, 2014 at 13:58
  • @Robusto surely I can, or I wouldn't have answered against the OP's suggestion that they are confusable.
    – Jon Hanna
    Jun 11, 2014 at 14:13
  • @JonHanna OK, but aren't you confirming that, if you intend to be duplicitous, devious, like an ancient oracle, in your words "Jesuitical", then "I promise not to" can actually have a double meaning? The reason I am asking is that I saw a movie where the guy said "I promise not [pause] to kill X" and then he asked someone else to do it for him, thus violating the spirit of his promise (i.e. he wouldn't have X killed), but not the letter because he didn't actually do it himself. Jun 11, 2014 at 20:58
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There is no rule of language saying that a sentence changes meaning based on where you inserted a little pause.

I wonder if you've got mathematics on the brain. We know that, for example, (2+3)/6 is different from 2+(3/6), even though they could both potentially be pronounced as "two plus three over six". In theory we could clarify this, without brackets, by inserting a long pause, or speed-speaking the piece that is supposed to be "together": "two plus THREE-OVER-SIX!".

You could in theory give your sentence ("I promise not...") two different meanings, depending on where you bracket it. But that's not how language actually works. You'd just be having a bit of fun to yourself.

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  • << I can see a bird in that field that is largely green >> would be disambiguated (showing what 'largely green' is modifying) by pause positioning (and stress patterning) in speech. There are better rewrites in print, of course. Mar 29, 2023 at 11:09
  • Hmm... I suspect you know what you're talking about, but I don't believe I would pronounce the example sentence differently, whether the bird or the field were green. Good old David Crystal gave the example of the "TOY factory" and the "FRENCH teacher" -- but I don't see it in this larger phrase.
    – equin0x80
    Apr 5, 2023 at 5:12
  • << I can see a bird, in that field that is largely green >> / << I can see a bird ... in that field that is largely green >> V << I can see a bird in that field, that is largely green >> (Possibly a 'half-comma' is needed but unavailable to correspond to the pause length. Intonation aids differentiation in spoken English. In the first 2 sentences, 'that is largely green' is used as an identifier (it would be very unusual not to write two sentences if two facts so loosely associated semantically were being presented). Little modulation. But 'largely green' would be stressed in the third. Apr 5, 2023 at 15:51

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