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