I have problems distinguishing the negation of a verb that is applied to a clause, and a verb that is applied to a negation of a clause. The following is an example that I do understand:

  1. I do not want to speak about it
  2. I want not to speak about it

In the last case, since the object is an action, we prepend "not" before the "to speak" part. The word "not" stays between the main verb ("want") and the verb in the clause ("to speak"). There is no confusion with (3) because if we wanted to negate the verb, we would negate the auxiliary verb.

But in other cases, when the main verb happens to be negated without an auxiliary (such as "can"), I have trouble in trying to see if there is any distinction:

  1. I am not able to tell her -> I cannot tell her -> I [negation of "may"] [clause "to tell her"] -> "I may not tell her"
  2. I am able not to tell her -> I can omit telling her -> I [verb may] [negation of the clause "to tell her"] -> "I may not tell her"?

I am not sure if (6) would be written equal to (5), and in that case, is there no way to distinguish it from the former?

  1. I [verb must] [negation of the verb phrase "have the pencil"]
  2. I [negation of verb must] [verb phrase "have the pencil"]

I think we could also consider new examples (9) and (10) using "should" for "must".

Is there something I am missing, or are there any specific rules for negating a clause?

  • I am not able to tell her vs. I am able not to tell her is a relevant distinction, but "I may not to tell her" isn't grammatical from the start. It might help to edit that example. Commented May 2, 2017 at 5:27
  • The first thing you're missing is that objects are almost always noun phrases, not clauses. Since there are no objects in any of your examples ("not to tell her" is not an object), negating an object is irrelevant here. In any case, your examples 5/6 are ungrammatical since modal auxiliary verbs like "may" require a bare infinitival complement, not a to- infinitival.
    – BillJ
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 7:02
  • Hi RaceYouAnytime & @BillJ, I am sorry for the ungrammatical examples. I have updated my question
    – Nicolas P
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 12:10
  • "I want not to speak about it.", just like that, is a non-standard usage. To the extent that we can understand it, it means exactly the same as "I do not want." There is a rhetorical usage of the delayed negative for emphasis: "I want not to speak about it but to shout it from the rooftops!" Or "I want not to speak about it, but to write you a short memo."
    – Tuffy
    Commented Sep 15, 2023 at 13:26

2 Answers 2


One difficulty is "can" and "may" as modals are very similar to "to be able". They follow different rules, however, despite the present's being "I am able," "I can" being close to interchangeable. The modals are not followed by the infinitive, unlike "to be able", and they are negated differently. I can not do this. I can not see you. I may not be here tomorrow. But I am not able to do this, I am not able to see you, I am not able to be here tomorrow. Yes, I may not tell her and I am not able to tell her.


I want you to look at your list #7 and #8, because you have, in your question, defined how to tell the difference.

In #7, you observe that the negation is applied to the verb.

In #8, you observe that the negation is applied to the dependent clause. The dependent clause then modifies the verb. The negation being applied to the clause can and typically does create a different meaning as opposed to negating the primary verb.

From your examples:

  1. I do not want to speak about it.
  2. I want not to speak about it.

The end result (action) in this instance is the same. However, in #5 and #6? We have a different situation. I am going to drop the multiples of the example as extraneous and confusing, due to the changing of the verb (at least, for the moment).

  1. I am not able to tell her
  2. I am able not to tell her

The result is a significant change in meaning. The reason there is a difference is because of the primary verb used. And, you are negating the verb, or you are negating the dependent clause. Here you have "I am able", or "I am not able". When you are able, you have a choice. When you are not able, you do not have a choice. So let's reword them slightly.

5.a. "I have no choice, I cannot tell her."

6.a "I can choose not to tell her."

Examples 5 is equivalent in meaning to 5.a, and 6 to 6.a.

To borrow from your 5 and 6, let's use "omit" and see what we can do.

  1. "I can not omit telling her."

  2. "I can omit not telling her."

Rewording for relative equivalent meaning:

9.a "I must tell her."

10.a "If I choose to, I can tell her."

(Although, the use of "omit" here may mean the sentence has secondary implications that would be based on context.)

How about the verb run? Sticking with simple sentences:

"I cannot run to tell her."

"I ran to not tell her."

I think you will see the difference easily there.

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