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October 10th, 2007

To not smoke or not to smoke? / switch out, swap out, change out

by Barbara Wallraff

Jim Simek, of Dryden, Mich., writes: “What is the correct usage of ‘to not’ or ‘not to’? Example: ‘It is advisable to not (not to?) smoke when there are children present.’ What’s the rule, if there is one?”

Dear Jim: The rule is, it’s advisable not to smoke when anyone, including oneself, is present. Oh, sorry — that’s not what you were asking. I wouldn’t be surprised if the 17th-century poet John Dryden had in mind the way we use “not” when he invented his so-called rule against splitting infinitives. Since well before Dryden’s day, the normal pattern has been not to put “not” between the parts of an infinitive verb, like “to smoke” or “to put.” We say “It’s healthier not to smoke” or “I don’t want to smoke” instead of “... to not smoke.”

Occasionally, splitting an infinitive with “not” conveys a slightly different meaning from, or sounds less artificial than, other versions of the same phrase. Then the split is OK — like any other split infinitive that is clearer or tidier than its unsplit counterpart. For instance, “I don’t want to smoke for the rest of my life” is ambiguous, “I want not to smoke” is awkward and “I want to not smoke for the rest of my life” is fine.

Beth Schultz, of McFarland, Wis., writes: “I am really annoyed by the word ‘out’ in sentences such as ‘The road will be closed while the power company switches out a pole.’ Doesn’t the sentence have the same meaning without ‘out’? My jaw clenches every time I hear this!”

Dear Beth: I agree that “out” in sentences like that one is clumsy. The reason people use it, though, is they’re not sure they do mean “switch” — or “swap” or “change,” two other verbs that often are seen with “out.” They say or write one of those verbs and then wonder whether everybody will understand what is replacing what or what kind of change is taking place, so they throw “out” in.

Let’s look at a couple of examples from newspaper articles published earlier this month: “The Wild aren’t all that different from last season. Swap out Todd White and Wyatt Smith for Eric Belanger and Dominic Moore, and it’s pretty much the same lineup” (Pioneer Press, Minnesota) and “The area had a scheduled water outage yesterday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. so the Navy could change out a meter” (Pacific Daily News, Guam).

Beth, how’s your jaw holding up? You’re right that “swap A for B” is supposed to mean “replace A with B.” Anyone who doesn’t trust readers to know that should feel free to swap “swap out” for “replace.” Similarly, anyone who doesn’t trust readers to understand that “change” in “change a meter” also means “replace” (and who knows? It could mean something like “reset”) should feel free to replace “change out” with “replace.” Various peculiar ways of putting things — another is “substitute A with B” — result when someone thinks of a wrong or unclear word and then, instead of looking for one clear word to replace it, patches together something hoping to make the first word work.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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