bibah003 (bibah003) wrote in linguaphiles,

"To not" or "not to"

He taught me to not lose hope.

He taught me not to lose hope.

Is there a difference in meaning between these two sentences? I think I always hear the form of the second sentence being used to imply the same meaning as the first sentence, but for some reason, it occurred to me today that it might not mean the same. It hurts my head when I try to understand it.
Tags: english, grammar english
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March 29 2014, 21:37:38 UTC 1 year ago

There are some times when "to not" and "not to" have distinct meanings, but I don't think this is the case here. I can't perceive a difference between the two.

I'm trying to think of situations where there would be a difference. One of the ones where where you put the "not" changes the sentence is when you have the difference between "don't have to" and "must not", but I can't think of a way you would have that in the infinitive.

In your two examples, the second is more natural and less awkward to me.


March 30 2014, 17:26:25 UTC 1 year ago

"This is how not to do it" = "How to do it wrong."

"This is how to not do it" = "How to avoid doing it at all."


March 30 2014, 17:27:13 UTC 1 year ago

Oh, well done!


March 31 2014, 00:06:38 UTC 1 year ago



March 31 2014, 04:52:58 UTC 1 year ago

Thank you! So usually it is "not to" but in some cases the order can bring about different meanings.


April 1 2014, 02:54:52 UTC 1 year ago


Then what does "This is not how to do it" equal?


March 29 2014, 21:49:35 UTC 1 year ago

The meaning is not different. Some prescriptivists are opposed to splitting infinitives. They have mostly lost this battle, but most people still prefer to avoid splitting infinitives with negation.


March 29 2014, 22:48:11 UTC 1 year ago

Yes. To me, 'to not' seems very very formal, stilted, archaic.

In Tennyson's Ulysses there are several old-fashioned placements of 'not', but the modern one as well. Maybe he was just varying it for meter, or maybe for some more interesting reason....

That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

Myself not least,

decent not to fail / In offices of tenderness

Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.


Southern US / old Oxbridge


March 29 2014, 23:05:46 UTC 1 year ago

Apart from teh fact the the former version sounds weird, I can see how one can use them in the same text with slightly different meaning. Normal meaning is conveyed in the latter clause: He taught me that one should keep hope, always, no matter how perilous the circumstances may seem. The former "may* be construed as "He taught me HOW to keep hope in such situations" (assuming there is a technique for that). But maybe it's just me who sees this tiny sliver of difference. This is basically as the difference (if any) between "he taught me to keep hope" and "he taught me not to lose hope".


March 29 2014, 23:16:41 UTC 1 year ago

I agree.


March 30 2014, 00:06:53 UTC 1 year ago

This is how I see it, too. A slight difference in meaning, but for most uses, "not to" is less formal and less odd.


March 30 2014, 15:51:47 UTC 1 year ago

Wow. I found the second example weird but it's actually the first one. Thank you for clearing things up.


March 30 2014, 02:11:30 UTC 1 year ago

Well, in the first place, by the traditional rules of English grammar (the ones borrowed from Classical Latin), putting an adverb in between the "to" and the actual verb is not correct usage.

Setting that aside, there is perhaps a subtle difference. "To lose hope" is a form of a verb, and implies the action or process of going from hope to despair; "not to lose hope" implies the absence of that process, and thus stability. But "to not lose hope" would suggest an action, the action of maintaining or holding on to hope—not simply the absence of a change but the presence of an active preservation. It gives slightly more agency to the person whose state of hope or despair is being discussed.

But it's not a big difference, and not everyone would see it as real. And "not to lose hope" is a bit more idiomatic, I think.


March 30 2014, 15:49:12 UTC 1 year ago Edited:  March 30 2014, 15:49:24 UTC

I haven't heard about that grammar rule. Will keep it in mind. The subtle difference you've explained is exactly what I was thinking of, but I didn't know how to word it. Thank you very much for explaining.


March 30 2014, 15:56:03 UTC 1 year ago

The traditional name for that construction is "split infinitives," and it's one of the big no-nos of older grammar books, along with "ending a sentence with a preposition" and "dangling participles." I have different feelings about the three: I have no problem with ending sentences with prepositions, and in fact, there are two grammatically regular ways of doing so in English; I don't think the rule against split infinitives is necessary, but I find them inelegant and try to avoid them; I think dangling participles are a real problem for correct reading of a sentence and clarity of thought (Strunk and White have a great example—"Wondering irresolutely what to do, the clock struck twelve").


March 30 2014, 06:29:21 UTC 1 year ago

Being British rather than English I don't think I can be helpful here - I would even say "Not to lose hope!" but that's using "not to" to render the Welsh "paid a" (literally "refrain from" but meaning "don't")