To be or not to be or to not be: An exploration of corpora and viscera

The sentence was “Learn personal safety techniques, but I urge you to not buy a gun.” This was on a proofreading exercise looking for errors in gerund and infinitive usage. Though I had not taught it, many students highlighted the “to not buy” part and corrected it as “not to buy”. I told one of my students that either is acceptable and he said to me, “that feels weird”. This made me think of two things. This student has internalized a grammatical structure to the point where it had a sense of visceralness on par with “native speakers”. The other thought was, am I wrong? In this blog post, I will mostly focus on the latter thought, but I will come back to the more philosophical implications of the former.

To me, the placement of “not” in regards to an infinitive is fluid. It feels right to me in either place, though coming right before the verb does also have a feeling of emphasis as opposed to coming before “to”. I have been corrected on this before by a well-respected colleague I work with (one who I really enjoy getting into playful language tiffs with), but I always feel many of their corrections come down to prescriptivism and style rather that straight up grammar (we stI’ll argue about singular “they”). So, in order to answer my question of whether “to not” or “not to” is correct, I turned to my friends Google and COCA.

A Google n-gram search for “not to, to not” returned the following:

tonotgooglengram

Hmm…maybe I am wrong. “To not” barely lifts its head in recognition. But, what’s this? “Not to” seems to be falling with a slight upward tilt at around the same time “to not” makes an appearance. Is one trying to assert its dominance? That is probably a different story. “to not” exists, but may not be as common as thought, at least in books, edited by those who follow style guides

What about COCA?

Well, before drinking a cup of COCA, I noticed that the great corpus gods at Brigham Young have transformed the Google n-gram corpus into a POS-tagged database, which could give me a better look at the above search. A search for “not to [vv0*]”, that is, “not to” + base verb form gave me the following…byugooglengramnotto

…and “to not [vv0*]” gave me…

byugooglengramtonot

While the actual tokens are still worlds less for “to not” than “not to,” the increase has been almost double from 1990 to 2000 while “not to” has clearly been on a slow decline. Interesting. Six years later, this trend is likely continuing

Time to do some lines of COCA:

“not to”

cocanotto

“to not”

cocatonot

COCA mirrors the rise of “to not” from Google, especially in spoken English, though it is not absent in academic English. In fact, here are some KWIC examples of “to not” in Academic English:

cocatonotkwicacademic

All of this data tells me several things. First, “to not” is on the rise, most likely due to the fact that the ability to separate an infinitive has become more accepted and “to not” has probably rolled in through a snowball effect. Second, the placement of “not” does not necessarily imply emphasis, as can be seen in the sentences above. Third, while my speech may make some of the older generations shake their first with anger, possibly telling me I am killing English, I can now reply confidently that my speech is the vanguard of an English where “not” is as placement-fluid as “they” is gender-fluid. My speech may be a speech that is likely to boldly go where few have gone before. Or to not boldly go, because language change is really unpredictable, and this is just a tiny thing. Of course, I wouldn’t actually say any of this. I’m neither a grammar pedant nor an in-your-face defender of anything goes linguistic descriptivism.

However, the last thing it tells me is that grammar is not correct because of writers, style guides, or lines of random sentences. No, grammar correctness, and what is “correct” to a “native speaker” is something visceral. It is what “feels” right. Language is not a set of rules but a shared set of feelings about how we communicate, passed on as naturally to us as other concepts, such as love or morality. That is, we begin learning these things at or before birth from family, friends, and our environment. Of course, as second language students, language gets internalized later and in different ways, but at some point, things do get internalized. Students begin to develop gut feelings about the language based on prior experiences, whether or not we consider them correct. Language is the internal made external, and what comes out is never based on a set of rules, but what “feels” right and has felt right since we began listening to our first sounds of the language.

So, to me, both forms feel right and I am correct. To my student, one form feels right and they are correct. To teach or prescribe otherwise would be to not follow the spirit of communication and to deny the very “feeling” of being a speaker of a language.

(Updated and edited for typos and clarity.)

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