I know that "I tried not to do that" and "I tried to not do that" are both valid sentences grammatically speaking. But can the second construction be applied to reported commands? Is it correct to say, for example:

He told me to not do that.

This sentence sounds ungrammatical to my ears. But so did the sentence "I tried to not do that" until a while ago. I used to hear this construct by non-native English speakers whose native language interfered with their command of English. Now I know that this hasn't been the case. What about reported commands?

2 Answers 2


Let’s take another example. ‘I command you not to attack before dawn,’ the general ordered his troops would be reported as The general ordered his troops not to attack before dawn. However, what if the original was ‘I command you to not attack before dawn,’ the general ordered his troops? To be faithful to the general’s words, wouldn't that have to be reported as The general ordered his troops to not attack before dawn?

  • I believe that you are using Socrates' method to answer my question. In other words, "to not do" can be correct in reported speech. Is it also correct if the sentence to report is "Don't attack before dawn"?
    – Irene
    Dec 27, 2011 at 18:42
  • 1
    Like FumbleFingers, 'I don't do correct'. The only helpful question to ask about a sentence like 'The general ordered them to not attack before dawn' is whether or not it achieves the writer's communicative purpose, bearing in mind the context and the readers. FWIW, I would avoid it, simply because it risks drawing the reader's attention away from what I have to say by giving rise to a discussion such as this, interesting though it may be at another time and in another place. Dec 27, 2011 at 19:01
  • Ok, point taken. Thank you both for your answer and your comment.
    – Irene
    Dec 27, 2011 at 19:11
  • I'm completely with @Barrie here that this isn't a matter of which version is "correct". But I do think that RandomIdeaEnglish's answer is at least as good (if not better) because in cases like this it's often important to know which version is more common. So far as I can see though, it's just stylistic variation - I'm not aware of any possible difference in meaning or nuance thereof, except feasibly the less common version (to not do that) might be considered slightly more formal. But I'm by no means sure that's true to any significant degree, Dec 28, 2011 at 1:57
  • @FumbleFingers: There are grammar books that condemn the use of "to not do that", so I'd say the less common version wouldn't be considered more formal by many, just incorrect. But since I've heard it used and seen it appear in novels (all American English, but that isn't the point here), I can't condemn it.
    – Irene
    Dec 28, 2011 at 8:08

I'm not saying your second example is incorrect, but it doesn't sound very natural to me, either in direct or indirect speech. This from Michael Swan in Practical English Usage - 'Negative forms (of infinitives) are normally made by putting not before the infinitive', and he gives as an example - Try not to be late, rather than Try to not be late

Usage in books overwhelmingly suggests the same, according to ngrams: ngrams

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