53

This is one thing that keeps bugging me, and maybe there's a direct answer.

Grammatically, which one is more correct of these two? Does it make a difference?

I tried not to do that.

I tried to not do that.

  • 6
    The sentence with not between to and the verb (do in this case) is a special case of the split infinitive construction. According to CGEL, 2.3 Secondary verb negation, p. 803, these two sentences are semantically equivalent, and either is acceptable. – user3286 Apr 29 '11 at 2:30
  • @Vitaly: this sounds like an answer to me -- why not post it as such? – sibbaldiopsis Apr 29 '11 at 5:57
  • @sibbaldiopsis Because the question itself is a duplicate. There is already a good answer to an earlier question (to which I linked in my previous comment). – user3286 Apr 29 '11 at 6:14
  • Both possibilities are correct. "not to do" is more frequent than "to not do". 76 results when you fill in "negative infinitive" into the search field. – rogermue Jul 24 '15 at 9:48
52

As some others have said, both are correct, and it is not wrong to say

I tried to not do that.

However, that is not the full story. Searching the Corpus of Contemporary American for various phrases (not to hold vs to not hold; not to know vs to not know; not to go vs to not go) reveals that the not to <verb> form is far more common:

| Verb | Not to <verb> | To not <verb> | %  |
| Hold | 97            | 6             | 94 |
| Know | 1130          | 69            | 94 |
| Go   | 452           | 57            | 88 |

(Note that I didn't search for "not to [any verb]", because that also picks up certain fixed expressions such as "not to mention ..." which might distort the picture.)

So it's clear that the not to <verb> form is far more common. Furthermore, looking at the context of a sample of the to not <verb> examples, most of them appeared to be in speech (either on the radio, or quoted in a magazine), or very informal writing.

Searching the British National Corpus gives an even clearer bias - there, not to <verb> dominates by about 99%.

So in general usage, it is clear that not to <verb> is preferred by most writers.

Why is this? And when should one choose one expression or the other? Naturally this is rather subjective, so take the following explanation as my personal view on the matter, but note that it is consistent with what a lot of other people think.

  • Putting the not in between the to and its verb disrupts the expected flow, creating a slightly jarring effect - the to primes the reader/listener to expect a verb, and so it is a little surprising to find another word there.
  • While the so-called rule against "splitting infinitives" is entirely false, there are nonetheless a sizeable proportion of educated people who believe it is an absolute rule, and will be irritated (or at least, think you poorly educated/stupid) if you do. One should never let this fact scare one into writing awfully clumsy sentences to avoid such disapproval, but in cases where there is nothing to be gained by splitting the infinitive, it's a good idea not to, and that is often the case here.

So when might one want to say to not <verb>?

  • Occasionally this can avoid ambiguity: My aim is not to kill him could either mean I'm not aiming to kill him (i.e. my aim is something other than killing him), or I'm aiming not to kill him (i.e. my aim is keeping him alive). Saying My aim is to not kill him definitely means I'm aiming not to kill him. (In this case I would personally just say I'm aiming not to kill him - but in other circumstances it might not be so easy to rephrase.)
  • As I mentioned in the first bullet point above, putting the not after the to goes against the listener's expectations. This can sometimes be used for effect, especially if you want to put particular emphasis on the not.
  • What about "I tried to do not do that"? – Sasan Aug 14 '17 at 16:48
  • 1
    @Sasan: Did you really mean to have two "do"s? That's not grammatical in any dialect I'm aware of... – psmears Aug 14 '17 at 18:54
14

The normal form of a negative infinitive is "not to X", in all contexts.

The form "to not X" is grammatical (notwithstanding the generations of people who have moaned about "splitting the infinitive"), but unusual, and would only be used in order to convey a special meaning.

So "I try not to care" would be normal, but "I try to not care" would be spoken with an emphasis on the "not", and would suggest that I am trying very hard to do something specific "not caring" instead of caring.

  • 1
    I think it's well known that any general concern about "splitting the infinitive" with an adverb is a crock, but the construction "to not X" does not sound grammatical to me. It sounds like the speaker of "to not X" is trying to create a new verb "not X" and construe it as a specific verb in a positive sense, which I do not believe is quite correct. So I would say that "to not care" is no more grammatical than its ordinary negation "not to not care", e.g. "I try not to not care" for "I try not to be uncaring. – JL344 Aug 4 '12 at 21:10
  • Wouldn't the word in front of "not" + infinitive affect this? I'm thinking specifically of the case of "how." Take, for example, "how to not snore" or "how to not drink." That is, asking how to avoid doing the stated action. Although “how not to X” might be used for this, “how to not X” seems more common. But you can also have “how not to X” in which X is something you would or might do, but you’re talking about how to avoid doing it improperly: “how not to speak to your boss,” “how not to dress.” The latter wouldn’t be taken to mean “how to stay naked all day." – Ascendant Oct 10 '12 at 5:19
  • As one who went to school in the 1950s and got a teacher's red line though the least split infinitive that I wrote, nothing would ever induce me to split an infinitive. And I am consciously aware of anyone who does and somewhere in my head it makes a grating sound. It makes me want to say to them "Write 100 times 'I must remember never to split an infinitive'" REMEMBER TO NOT SPLIT YOUR INFINITIVES. – WS2 Jan 21 '15 at 14:32
  • 1
    @WS2: I sympathise for the systematic child abuse which was inflicted on you, in service of the lie that there was something wrong with your command of your native language. – Colin Fine Jan 21 '15 at 17:32
  • 3
    @WS2: Ah, that's a different matter. Children the world over learn that it is sometimes advantageous to speak a certain way to authorities, and there is no harm in helping them master that skill. That's very different from claiming that there is only one proper way to speak and anything else is "incorrect". – Colin Fine Jan 22 '15 at 22:11
5

Some people will tell you that you should say "I tried not to do that."

However, this is what I think:

When you say, "My goal was to do X," it's clear what that you had a goal and that it was to do X. When you say, "My goal was not to do X," was you goal to ensure that you not do X ("I tried not to do X"), or was doing X just not a goal ("My goal was not to do X but to do Y")? In context it might be clear what you mean based on whether or not you have the "but to do Y" part.

In the example you gave, someone saying that doing "that" simply wasn't a goal of theirs might say "I did not try to do that."

Even if ambiguity does arise, my statement is that you can go right ahead and say "I tried to not do that" if you and your audience are fine with it (or maybe even if your audience isn't fine with it but you choose to ;). In fact, I might recommend it.

  • 2
    "I tried not to do that" is very unlikely to be interpreted as "I didn't try to do that", because in modern English we don't say "I tried not" to negate "I tried". – psmears Apr 29 '11 at 9:51
1

Both

Older English grammars attempted to overlay Latin structure on modern English, which made no sense but turned split or cleft infinitives into a bugbear of a certain class of pedant. You can go with the first one in every case and, while it will sound unnatural or even give the wrong meaning in some contexts, it will never be marked as incorrect on a test. (Oxford)

In this particular case, both questions have a similar meaning and there's only a minor shift in emphasis: Can you afford not having-this-solution versus Can you afford not-having-this-solution.

In some other cases, the placement of the adverb actually affects the meaning.

Can you afford really to risk your children's future?

is, at a surface level, asking about risking your children's future at an extreme level instead of a moderate one. You could read it as asking about genuinely risking your children's future versus not doing so, but you'd need a dramatic and unnatural pause on both sides of the adverb to make it work.

Can you afford to really risk your children's future?

is only asking about genuinely risking your children's future and most native speakers will naturally opt for it when they speak.

The problem is that some sociolects (like @Ricky's) have so internalized the mistaken latinate rule that they really find split infinitives to be jarring to the eye and ear. Since English teachers and the upper class are disproportionately represented in those sociolects, many of the rest of us play along in formal situations like tests or theses while continuing to happily go our own way in day-to-day speech.

  • Your answer is so fine that I decided to move it to the canonical question about this. Thank you for your contributions: they are valued here. – tchrist Apr 20 '17 at 0:24
  • Don't sweat it. In their infinite wisdom, the curators are about to close it. They can only tolerate high quality questions and answers on this board. The OP does not seem to qualify. – Ricky Apr 20 '17 at 0:25
  • 1
    Unless you have evidence predating the 1834, I would recommend removing the accusations because there is no hard evidence to support them. The fact that you can't split an infinitive in Latin is suggestive, but no real reason was ever given in primary English sources other than perhaps ignorance of the practice, and most of the informative sources blame the the former Dean of Canturbury, Henry Alford, for popularizing it in 1864. Even if Latinists are to blame, who first made the mistake isn't really essential to linguistic aspect of the matter anyway. – Tonepoet Apr 20 '17 at 0:51
  • @tchrist Wow. No upvote apparently ^_^ but thanks for that encouragement. – lly Apr 20 '17 at 1:06
  • In this discussion, though, @psmears's answer seems to have it very well covered. There's a slight bias against splitting the infinitive but the data backs up their point for written sources. – lly Apr 20 '17 at 1:10
0

I think to properly vet this subject one should remember that there are many kinds of verbs (state, event, transitive, etc.). I've seen four possibilities.

  • [nothing]: no infinitive
  • know: base infinitive
  • to know: infinitive
  • knowing: gerund
  1. I know. / I do not know.
  2. I might know. / I might not know.
  3. I would like to know. / I would not like to know. / I would like not to know.
  4. I prefer knowing. / I don't prefer knowing. / I prefer not knowing.

It seems to me most people on this forum are discussing example number three because of the necessity of the word "to". But I think the bigger question is where one puts the blasted negation "not" when confronted with a complex sentence. If it really is a question of emphasis of meaning, it seems to be a very subtle affair, the likes of which make my brain want to turn into mush. It also makes me wonder if the rule of "no double negatives" is grammatically absolute. How is someone like myself supposed to teach this kind of thing to students whose native tongue (French for example) allows for double negatives, as well as only having one infinitive for the three that exist in English? You don't! That's what I say. Blast the complexities of grammar!

0

Principally it is not okay, for it won't be natural. But it is not ungrammatical to do so. In fact, not is quite commonly used to split infinitives in order to put emphasis on the negativity of the sentence being spoken or written.

0

The first version is quite correct:

Can you afford not to take this approach?

The other one is deliberately contrived and would only be correct if the speaker accentuates the contrivance by inserting a pause between "to" and "not" and emphasizing "not":

Can you afford to ... not!!! ... take this approach?

  • 2
    There's nothing contrived about splitting infinitives. It's perfectly normal and has been since it first became possible in Middle English. – lly Apr 19 '17 at 23:42
  • @lly: "... to boldly split infinitives no man had split before ..." [Douglas Adams, I think] – Ricky Apr 19 '17 at 23:45
  • @lly: Incidentally: my answer has nothing at all to do with splitting infinitives. – Ricky Apr 19 '17 at 23:45
-2

It should sound better to say not + verb rather than to not + verb. e.g.

I try not to tell her all your secret

(I do not try to tell her all your secret).

It looks much more good grammatically than to say

I try to not say all your secret.

  • 4
    There are so many things wrong with this I don't know where to begin. – David M Mar 14 '14 at 19:47
-4

Opinion: The word NOT should ALWAYS go before TO + verb. When the emphasis is on not doing something, instead of saying, "I tried to not do that," say, "I tried to avoid doing that." That conveys the same meaning without the split infinitive.

  • This sort of rule is commonly stated. It's also importantly wrong in this case. There is a difference between NOT + "to" + [verb of intent] and "to" + NOT + [verb of intent] – virmaior Feb 11 '14 at 0:59

protected by tchrist Jul 1 '14 at 0:59

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