How does the grammatical function of the word "not" differ in these two sentences below?

  1. He tried to not run.
  2. He tried not to run.

It seems to me that in sentence 1 (1) the subject is positively trying to not run, but in sentence 2 (2), "not" is serving to negate "tried."

Am I thinking about this correctly?

  • In the first one we don't know the result, he may have or have not run, in the second "he tried not to run (but he failed to do so)" is implied.
    – P. O.
    Nov 23, 2016 at 18:13

3 Answers 3


I'll invent a context for each of your sentences, to give you a feel for what's going on. (As was already stated, #2 is more common.)

  1. As he exited the bank with his pockets stuffed with hundred-dollar bills, he tried to walk nonchalantly and not run.

  2. He so he tried not to run very fast, so his little brother would have the sensation of winning, but sometimes he would forget, and his legs would just go at their normal pace.


As a general rule (with lots of exceptions), a word like "not" applies to everything after it in the clause. In this particular case, the word "to" has no meaning that can be negated; it just marks the verb "run" as the infinitive form. So "not" negates "run," whether "to" comes before it or after it. In practice, we interpret sentences like these in a way that makes pragmatic sense based on the context. "He tried {not to / to not} run, but his fear got the better of him"--so he did run, or "He tried {not to / to not} run, and found that he was able to resist"--so he didn't run.

It seems more logical to put "not" right before what it negates, as "tried to not run," but it sounds more idiomatic to me to say "tried not to run" (maybe because of the effects of the old bogus "don't split infinitives" rule).

To negate "tried," you would have to move "not" to the left: "He didn't try to run."


He tried to not run is a split infinitive modifier error. The correct sentence would be he tried not to run. ;)

  • 1
    "Split infinitives" are a made-up error from people who though English should be more like Latin. People fluently split infinitives all the time. Jan 11, 2018 at 17:16

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