Grammar Common Spelling Mistakes 4 min2023-03-17 00:00

To Not vs Not To: Which Is Correct?

to not vs not to

Even though to not and not to are both grammatically correct, there are many writers who argue you should only use not to

Both to not and not to can appear before a verb in a sentence where the subject would prefer not to perform that verb. However, placing the word “not” between “to” and the verb creates a split infinitive. Most style guides and editors allow split infinitives if necessary for the sentence to sound correct.   

In this article we’re going to explain when to use to not and not to in a sentence and if one is better than the other. 

When to Use To Not

It is perfectly acceptable to use to not before a verb in almost all circumstances as long as the sentence conveys the intended meaning and doesn’t sound awkward. 

If using to not makes your sentence sound clunky and unnatural, you’ll affect the readability. Try using not to and see if it sounds better. If that doesn’t work, you might need to rewrite the sentence.

Split infinitives are debated a lot in the writing community. They are technically correct and perfectly fine to use, but the common agreement between professional style guides is that you should not split an infinitive unless it improves the sentence structure.

Examples of To Not in Sentences

  • They asked us to not play our music out loud. 

  • It would be stupid to not take his offer of employment. 

  • We aim to not be late, but the traffic is unpredictable. 

  • It’s best to not drink coffee before going to bed. 

to not vs not to definitions

When to Use Not To

When you want your writing to sound more formal and the sentence sounds better, you should use not to. Using not to protects the infinitive form of the verb. 

Many grammarians are resolute that infinitives shouldn’t be split. They argue that the infinitive form is the true form of the verb and to add anything between “to” and the verb is wrong. There are some examples where this is correct. 

If we take the example, “not to be rude, but it’s your fault,” the word “not” is used before the infinitive “to be.” In this sentence, not to cannot be replaced with to not as it changes the meaning and the sentence no longer makes any sense.    

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Examples of Not To in Sentences

  • I told him not to join us in the meeting room. 

  • She decided not to attend the meeting. 

  • It’s best not to assume the sale is successful until they sign the contract. 

  • We had been advised not to go out in the storm. 

Is It To Not Be or Not To Be? 

In most scenarios, whether you choose to use to not be or not to be is dependent on if the sentence sounds fine and if it conveys the correct meaning. 

One of the famous examples that used “not to be” was Shakespeare in Hamlet, act 3, scene 1. When Hamlet muses over the question of life or death, he begins his speech with “to be, or not to be.”

Considering this was written at a time when splitting infinitives wasn’t a common practice, it makes sense that Shakespeare opted for the infinitive form of “to be.” 

We can test if Shakespeare chose the correct option by swapping the word “be” with the word “live.” The meaning of “be” in Shakespeare’s sentence is “live.” The phrase becomes “to live or not to live,” which sounds correct, and perfectly conveys the conflict Hamlet is feeling about his life. 

In modern language, the more commonly used meaning of “to be” is “to occur,” or “to happen.” This makes it easier to use either not to be or to not be in a sentence without it skewing the meaning because your phrase will probably mean the same thing. So, the order of your sentence and how it sounds becomes more important than whether you use not to be or to not be

Here are some more examples of using not to be in a sentence:

  • He had hoped to win the lottery this weekend, but it was not to be.

  • Not to be skeptical, but do you think that will actually happen?

Here are some examples of using to not be in a sentence:

  • I told him to not be so scared of the dark. 

  • I need to not be so hard on myself all the time. 

definitions of to be

When to Avoid Both Not To or To Not

There are some examples where it’s best to rewrite the sentence and use different words instead of using to not or not to

For instance, in this sentence, “The coach had told the team not to win the match,” the phrase “not to win” doesn’t convey the power of what the coach is doing. Instead, it would be better written as, “The coach had told the team to lose the match.” 

This change both simplifies the sentence and brings clarity to what the coach actually told the team to do. 

Conclusion on To Not vs Not To

As you can see, this modern debate over splitting infinitives is not a straightforward one, so there’s not always a right or wrong time to use not to or to not

If you’re not sure which phrase to use, remember to check how the sentence sounds, if it conveys the correct meaning, and whether it needs to be rewritten. 

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