Which one would you choose in conversation? And I'd like to know the subtle difference. I would really appreciate it if you could help me.

  1. I wanted to not make a mistake.
  2. I wanted not to make a mistake.
  3. I didn't want to make a mistake.
  • Irrespective of any dialect, I'd go for the third one. If you choose 'simple' things, most of the times, they'll work! – Maulik V Mar 11 '15 at 13:00
  • Compare: 1) I told you to not [do something], 2) I told you not to [do something], 3) I didn't tell you to [do something]. With a different verb, the differences are more obvious. I wouldn't use 1). And though 3) is common, 2) is also valid; it has its own emphasis and a subtly different meaning. – Damkerng T. Mar 11 '15 at 13:15
  • @MaulikV Why is sentence 1 more simple? After all, sentence 1 doesn't technically mean the same thing as sentences 2, or 3. This makes it more complicated. When we use sentences like 1, we need to guess that the speaker is implying something like sentence 2 or 3 :) We do prefer sentence 1, but nobody really knows why! (See the longer post below) – Araucaria - Not here any more. Mar 11 '15 at 14:44
  • @Araucaria you din' get me! :) I said by choosing third, you are actually going for the simple thing and it'll work! – Maulik V Mar 12 '15 at 4:18

For academic students of English, and language teachers - from a post I wrote for ELU

Native English speakers strongly prefer negating the verbs think, believe and want, amongst others, to negating the complement clauses that they license. So, for instance, all other things being equal, we prefer:

(1). I don’t believe that the Yeti exists.


(2). I believe that the Yeti doesn’t exist.

We also would tend to prefer:

  • I don’t think I’m going to find it.


  • I think I’m not going to find it.

and there is absolutely no doubt that:

  • I don't want to go.

is far more customary than the rather stilted:

  • I want to not go.

Notice that what is implied by (1) is the same as what is literally encoded in (2). However, (1) does not in fact strictly semantically encode the same information as (2) at all. If we made no further pragmatic assumptions about what the speaker of (1) intended to convey, then the maximum we should be entitled to decode is that the speaker does not possess a positive creedal attitude about the existence of Yetis. It is entirely possible that the speaker may have no definite opinion about the existence or non-existence of Yetis, in which case they would not be able to truthfully commit to either a belief or disbelief in them. This might be due to an agnostic state of mind, or it may be merely because the speaker has never even thought about it. To commit the speaker of (1) to a belief in (2) is potentially doing them a great disservice.

Be that as it may, most listeners would understand (1) as conveying the same as (2), and they are indeed entitled to, because most speakers - unless they were wishing to be very explicitly technical about it - would prefer the former to the latter to convey the very same information. What is interesting here is that speakers are modifying the verb denoting the action of belief in order to manipulate the listener’s understanding of the object of the belief - the information in the complement clause. More specifically they are negating the verb denoting the believing, but implying a negation of the complement clause.

This phenomenon is known as SUBORDINATE NEGATION IMPLICATION. Verbs that tend to generate such implicatures seem to be verbs that denote states of intention, epistemic stance or opinion, or those which can be used performatively for advice. Dynamic verbs which denote actions, changes of mental states and so forth do not tend to generate these implicatures. Compare the following sentences with the dynamic verb say:

He didn't say that she danced.

He said that she didn't dance.

Here the two sentences do not convey the same information at all. We are not likely to infer the information in the second sentence when we read the first.

One more factor comes into play here. Verbs that generate subordinate negation implicatures, tend to be what are described in the CaGEL as medium strength verbs. They contrast for example 'stronger' know with 'medium strength' believe. The reason that these verbs tend to generate such implicatures is merely that, pragmatically, it does not seem very informative to tell somebody that you don't have a medium strength stance about something. We tacitly infer, on this basis, the more informative proposition that the speaker has a stance about a negative idea.

However, with so-called stronger verbs, on the other hand, it is informative to convey that your confidence in a stance is not 100%, or contrastingly with weak verbs to convey that that not even the slightest positive attitude is given to the proposition in the complement clause. The strong and weak usages of the following verbs do not, therefore, generate subordinate negation implication:

I don't know that she went. ≠ I know that she didn't go.

I don't suspect her of stealing.I suspect her of not stealing.

In relation to the original poster's question, it is fair to say that when we are not speaking in a very technical fashion indeed, that if we understand something as having a negative subordination implication, it probably has one. In other words the speaker was intending the listener to understand precisely that the content of the subordinate clause should be read as being negated. However, the original poster's debating partner was technically correct that when we negate verbs such as think, believe, want, what we say does not semantically entail the same thing as the negation of the proposition in the complement clause.

As to why speakers actually prefer to negate verbs such as want and believe rather than to negate their complement clauses, I do not believe that anybody knows (- by which I want you to infer that I believe that nobody knows).

  • I read both of your answers, and I don't think I understood one paragraph of this answer. To be precise I couldn't make out well those technical differences you made :-( I wish you had talked a bit about the placement of not in to-infinitive clause. To me it seems that OP is confused about the placement as well. – Man_From_India Mar 11 '15 at 15:01
  • @Man_From_India Yes, this answer's a very technical answer for the academic students of English and teachers - it's from the other side (ELU). Were you able to understand the shorter post? The reason I don't talk about not and to-infinitves is that it doesn't make any difference which you choose here. They're both equally marked. I might put in an extra bit, just for you though! – Araucaria - Not here any more. Mar 11 '15 at 15:11
  • 1
    Yes I have understood the shorter version. But also understood this one, but the thing is that I can't properly see the differences even if you showed it very well :-( Well I think it's for more advanced learners to understand. I am happy to know that they more or less mean the same thing :-) – Man_From_India Mar 11 '15 at 15:15
  • 1
    Thanks. I have seen it. The reason I asked to put you because I thought it's a valuable information for a learners :-) – Man_From_India Mar 11 '15 at 15:23
  • 2
    @DamkerngT. Yes, that's right, you made me remember. He calls it "Negative-Raising". There's a problem with that account though, because it makes out that the meanings are actually the same. In reality, when we negate verbs like want we are only implying that we want to not do something ... :) – Araucaria - Not here any more. Mar 11 '15 at 15:57

Short Answer

  1. I wanted to not make a mistake. (marked)
  2. I wanted not to make a mistake. (marked)
  3. I didn't want to make a mistake. (normal usage)

We quite often want to use two main verbs in English. In the Original Poster's example the first one is the verb "want". The second is the verb "make". When the first verb is about a desire, or belief (not knowledge), the second verb is part of a clause that tells us the content of that desire, or that knowledge.

In English, when the content of this belief or desire is a negative idea, perhaps the idea that you won't leave, or won't find something, we can put the negative word "not" in the content clause:

A. I want [ to not leave ].

B. I think [ I won't find it ] .

However, in both formal and informal English we prefer not to do this. Instead we like to make the main verb in the sentence negative:

C. I don't want [ to leave ]

D. I don't think [ I'll find it ]

We sometimes do make sentences like A or B, but this is quite unusual. We would say it is a marked usage. It has an unusual effect. It can sound technical, or emphasised. You do not want to do this very often or your English will sound very strange. In normal conversation we would definitely want to use the Original Poster's example (3).

In the Original Poster's marked examples, it does not really matter if "not" comes after or before "to". However, we normally put not before to when we want to make an infinitival clause negative:

  • I decided not to go. (normal usage)
  • I decided to not go. (marked)

Notice in the example above that the verb decide does not talk about a belief or desire.


In order of preference:

  1. I didn't want to make a mistake.
  2. I wanted to not make a mistake.

"I didn't want to make a mistake" is the most natural and is used far more often than the other two examples. "I wanted to not make a mistake" sounds a lot more careful, as if you've been accused of something and you're explaining your actions. I'd never say "I wanted not to make a mistake" because it's too archaic for everyday conversation (e.g. "Lead me not into temptation" from the Lord's Prayer).

  • "I wanted not to make a mistake" is possible as a second clause "I didn't want X, I wanted Y". Say, "I cleared the course with zero penalties but poor time. I didn't want to run to the goal at top speed, I wanted not to make a mistake." – SF. Mar 11 '15 at 13:13
  • In that case I'd say "I cleared the course with zero penalties but poor time. I didn't want to run to the goal at top speed, as I didn't want to make a mistake." You're right in saying that "I wanted not" is possible as a second clause, but in my opinion it still sounds a bit odd. – Mark Mar 11 '15 at 13:15

AFAIK the first two are equivalent, but generally it's clearer and easier to understand to keep the 'to' and verb together(Reference: here):

I wanted not to make a mistake.

Or another example:

He said: "Don't ask me that."
He told me not to ask him that.

The third one is far more intuitive, but has a slightly different meaning:

I didn't want to make a mistake.

here, I didn't want it at all, vs the first two, I wanted the negative of it.

Another example:

I didn't want to eat that pepper(or anything at all).
I wanted not to eat that pepper(but that carrot).

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