Lindsay McMahon
"The English Adventurer"

Have you heard people use phrases that sound confusing to you in English?

When it comes to using “not + a verb” does this really seem like a difficult aspect of conversation?

We’re looking at the various ways that people use this and phrases that involve this aspect of English, as it can be a bit confusing.

Though you may feel unsure at first, the more that you listen and practice, the easier this will become to you.

We will show you how this works, and ultimately you will find that this comes down to personal preference.

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We have a listener question that goes above and beyond grammar, and you’re going to want to check this out!

Hi guys, It’s Oleg Kyiv from the Ukraine again!

First of all, I’d like to thank you for the “commitment” episode–it was awesome. Now I have a new question for you and hope that you are able to respond to it as I’m not sure who else to ask. Lately I’ve come across a certain use of the phrase “to not do”, though before I always seemed to notice the “not to do ” variation.

I then read about existing split infinitives, but it’s still hard to get the point here. I am struggling specifically with the “not ” part. So my question about this is how to use colloquial “to not+verb” and how this all works.

Would an average American say “to not do” as well as “not to do” or does this depend on the context? As you can see, I find this very confusing and could use some help.

I’m looking forward to hearing from you girls and to hopefully getting a helpful explanation.

Best wishes,


A Little Background

Before we jump into this topic at hand and excellent question, you’ll want to take a look at the first episode that our listener references.

How To Use The Word Commitment To Maintain Privacy And Be Concise

Let’s put some examples out there to get everything organized because it helps to break this down a bit.

“It’s important to not get flustered on the exam.”

“It’s important not to get flustered on the exam.”

So in the example Oleg is asking if it’s ok to say the first one, likely because it sounds a bit confusing.

He mentioned split infinitives–which shows that he is diving into the grammar, which is GREAT!

However this can sometimes get extremely confusing, and Oleg knew that he cared more about what is said rather than if it it’s colloquial, what most people say.

He’s right, as this is a question about what an “Average American” would say and that’s important to remember.

Basically the confusion may come in with split infinitives, such as what is said in the first example.

When you say something like “to not do” this is a split infinitive, which basically means that it’s splitting “to” and “do.”

There is a lot of talk and various opinions about split infinitives.

Some believe it’s ok, and some really don’t believe it works or is appropriate.

This is not where we are going to get bogged down!

You can check out this link as some of this is inspired by this

Looking At Examples

This is about what sounds right, and it may be a personal preference in the end.

People do use both, so we are going to talk about both so that you can hear both sides of it.

Sometimes one just sounds better, and this is where it may be personal preference.

There are times when one may stand out over another, and that’s okay too.

So let’s look back on the first example as that can help you to get started with breaking this down properly.

“It’s important to not get flustered on the exam.”

“It’s important not to get flustered on the exam.”

Which are you more likely to say?

You might be somebody who would say the second one—”not to get”–but you certainly could say the second one if you wanted to.

Let’s look at a couple of additional examples so you can take it a step further, and really understand how this works.

Look at each example and then read each one and compare them—you are likely to find that one sounds more natural to you than the other.

“The boss told her employees not to take three months of vacation at a time.”

“The boss told her employees to not take three months of vacation at a time.”

“Have you been told not to touch the animals?”

“Have you been told to not touch the animals?”

“I will try not to eat all the cookies before you get home.”

“I will try to not eat all the cookies before you get home.”

Again both work and are acceptable, but one is likely to stand out to you over the other.

Sometimes there can be a slight difference in what is emphasized, and you really want to pay attention to that.

“I asked you not to call me anymore.”

“I asked you to NOT call me anymore”– the NOT could be emphasized such as through intonation.

Here’s a headline that actually appeared and shows this example at work: “Australia vowed to never let these men settle on its soil. Some just got visas.”

This headline was on, and it shows that this sort of thing can work and be completely acceptable.

How Do You Decide Which To Use?

So what is the basic idea here?

You can use either, as you saw clearly in each example.

It may become a matter of preference, and so you want to listen to see which one sounds better or more natural to you.

The reality is that some people believe split infinitives are wrong, and so they will avoid whenever possible.

There are others though that do use them all the time in real life, and so this is where it becomes a matter of personal preference.

It’s important to listen for both and decide for yourself which sounds right and feels more natural in your conversations.

There really isn’t right or wrong here, it’s a matter of what you feel sounds like a better addition to your conversation.

When grammar is bogging you down though, and you are feeling really unsure then you can use a few things to help you to determine the right usage.

If you keep these things in mind they can help you in this situation, and they may even offer some insight into other uncertain situations.

  • Listen for it: This is where you really start to expand upon your English learning, for it’s about listening as much as it is about speaking. Take the time to listen when people are talking and using such phrases. Practice using each sort of sentence or example in a sentence, and see which sounds more natural to you. Listening to each version being used can help you to focus in on what sounds right—and then you will know what to use and make it a natural part of your conversation.
  • If it is controversial, it probably means more than one thing is ok: This is a perfect example of a time when there may be two totally different thoughts on what is acceptable or not. Use this as a springboard to look at various times when two differing things may actually both be acceptable. Though you may have a personal preference, it doesn’t mean that the other example is wrong. So if it appears as if there are two accepted ideas open to you, then it is more than likely to mean that either works just fine.
  • Pay attention for any chunk you may hear: There may be times when one chunk tends to be more commonly used than another. As you are listening closely to how something is used in conversation, be sure to see which chunk is used in the various examples.

Take the time to see how each one sounds and how it works, and this can give you an indication of the choice that’s right for you.

If you feel unsure, know that you are not alone—even natives feel a bit uncertain in situations like this.

Listen to examples used, practice using each one, and you will quickly find that one stands out as a preference to you over another.


This is a great question, and this brings awareness of what may or may not be colloquial vs. official grammar.

This can be a bit confusing, but if you break it down then it will make much more sense.

There are other topics we could do about split infinitives another day, because this is an important subject matter that tends to cause confusion.

Take your time with this, practice using them, look at the examples, and see what sounds most natural to you.

Though this can be a confusing area at first, if you really take your time and practice using them it will become much more natural to you in no time.

If you have any questions, please leave them below in the comments section.

We’ll get back to you as soon as we can.

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