One of the sections in the Help Center is called How to not be a spammer

Is that grammatically correct? Isn't it 'splitting the infinitive'? Shouldn't the phrase be

"How not to be a spammer"

I mean, do the words "how to" belong together so strongly that the result can be regarded as OK?

If not, is this something the local mods can change, or do we need to take this up with the SE developers?

  • This is unclear. What exactly is the problem? Is this better for the main site? I don't get it.
    – Mitch
    Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 13:15
  • @Mitch No, this is a question about wording in the Help Center, not about the English language as such.
    – Mr Lister
    Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 13:21
  • "How to not be ..." is a positive statement (how to) about something negative (not be ...). You didn't say what you thought it should be, but one candidate, "How not to be ..." is a negative statement (how not to) about something positive (be ...). They mean pretty much the same thing but each has its own emphasis. Is there something about the positive statement you find uncomfortable or objectionable?
    – Lawrence
    Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 14:31
  • 1
    books.google.com/ngrams/… I prefer to not split my infinitives, where possible...
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 15:19
  • @Mari-LouA Do you not prefer to boldly go where no one has gone before?
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 15:22
  • @MrLister You still have not clarified. What is wrong with "How not to be a spammer?". What do you want to change it to, and why?
    – Mitch
    Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 15:23
  • 1
    Possibly (or not) relevant ELU q: Are split infinitives grammatically incorrect or are they valid constructs?
    – Mitch
    Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 15:47
  • 1
    @Mitch There is nothing wrong with "How not to be". However, "How to not be", which is how it is currently written, splits the infinitive. That's why I asked if it could be changed, or if we need to take this up with the SE developers. I don't know how to make it clearer.
    – Mr Lister
    Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 16:04
  • @MrLister Your question is super clear. No concerns about that at all. The answer is for that specific page my understanding is the SE employees would have to change it. I think everyone is on the same page wrt all that. Renata at issue is if the current wording / construction is problematic and in particular whether it’s ungrammatical or more broadly wither awkward or more broadly undesirable. My take is it is fine as it is, and I think to convince everyone else to change the Help Center wording, you’ll have to build a grammatical case on Main.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 16:17
  • @DanBron I don't know that I can. Firstly, I'm not even a native speaker, and secondly, having read the linked question now, I am no longer convinced that this is a split infinitive.
    – Mr Lister
    Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 16:21
  • @MrLister I didn’t mean for you to make a case on Main, but for you to post a question on Main asking if the construction is grammatical or not and why. Then the syntax experts will answer you definitively, and if the conclusion is it’s ungrammatical, then you have a strong case to get SE to make a change.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 16:23
  • @MrLister It is definitely a split infinitive, but that's not always an error. The question is twofold as Dan has layed out: first whether this instance is acceptable, and second how does one change such text if it should be changed.
    – Mitch
    Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 16:23
  • @MrLister it is annoyingly confusing because one would naturally expect a web site that purports to address language usage to have more thought put in to its UI (specifically in this case the grammar in labels). But this world is big enough that one may not know of the other. The individual user sites on SE are populated by users who are not associated with the software development team at SE. Also, ELU is not really a school teacher who will correct things or even know 'correct' things, but more like an amateur with a wildly variable knowledge base.
    – Mitch
    Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 16:28
  • 1
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because one part of the question is a duplicate of Change the text... or it is an actual content question suitable for the main site, where it is also a duplicate: Are split infinitives...valid
    – Mitch
    Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 1:17
  • 2
    @Mari-LouA Voting works differently on Meta. This is just people disagreeing with the proposal. And like I said, by now I'm not even 100% sure any more that this is indeed a split infinitive! (That is, the "to" might belong to the "How" and not to the "be".)
    – Mr Lister
    Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 12:21

3 Answers 3


You have two questions here:

  1. Is “how to not be” grammatical?, and
  2. predicated on (1), how can that wording be changed in the help center?

How to not be ungrammatical

For a fuller analysis of the grammatically of this wording, you should ask on EL&U Main. Meta is for settling matters about the site, Main is for settling questions about English.

None the less, in the interest of discussing question (2), which is about the site, I’ll post this brief summary of the English question here:

Screenshot of Google nGram showing significant usage of “how to not be”

And in the COCA, which is probably the most widely-used corpus of English, which collects a series of professionally published works, including fiction, popular magazines, newspapers, and academic texts.

screenshot of the top few results for this construction in the COCA corpus

I think suffices to bring into question (1), which is the premise of (2).

How to not be irked by the help center

Parts of the Help Center can be changed by elected mods on EL&U; but the parts that are universal across SE sites can only be changed by StackExchange employees.

Given that the language “how to not be a spammer” is an example of the latter language, to change it for the domain english.stackexchange.com, the SE elected mods would have to bring a case to the SE Community Managers.

But if it’s ungrammatical, presumably you’d want it repaired wherever it’s used in SE help centers, not just on the english. subdomain. For that, you’d have to bring the case yourself to Meta.se where both the Community Managers and broader StackExchange audience can see it, weigh in on it, and make a final determination.

Note that for either the english. subdomain as a whole or for a more universal change, you’ll have to bring a case that “how to not be” is ungrammatical. That is, as I said, your question (2) is predicated on question (1).

And, given the nGrams I evidenced above, the premise in (1) is looking none too healthy.

How not to believe English speakers speak English

But if the spark of prescriptivism burns brightly in your soul, and you are dismayed by the absolute ubiquity of this usage, then your best bet is to ask (without prejudice) on EL&U main and let our resident grammarians make a case one way or another.


If it aint broke then don't (try to) fix it

say the Americans and they are absolutely right. "How to not be a spammer" deals with how somebody should take care to not be a spammer. "How not to be" might well be the more widely used construction, and could probably be used instead without significantly changing the emphasis or meaning of the statement, but as already pointed out in the earlier answer by @Dan Bron and in some comments under the question, the split infinitive when employed as in "how to not be" has become widely enough used over the years to not be (descriptively if not prescriptively) considered ungrammatical any more by general consensus, though pedants can beg to differ.

Since there is no error there is nothing to repair, and no proposal to send upstairs to SE staff.

Of course I am no grammarian, nor an expert on how this network works. Those who disagree with my answer are requested to post your valuable inputs in the comments section.


They would have different meanings

How to not be a spammer

On this page I would expect to see advice for how to avoid being a spammer.

How not to be a spammer

On this page I would expect to see advice for how to avoid being a bad spammer. Gotta make sure your spams are lit!

  • Or the first one how to prevent becoming a spammer (you're not one right now) and the second one how to stop being a spammer (you are one now but want to change)?
    – Mitch
    Commented Feb 17, 2018 at 13:28
  • If this was an answer on the main site I would challenge you... ack to heck. Produce a reference that supports your answer or forthwith be expelled.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Feb 17, 2018 at 19:27
  • @mari my native speaker understandings and intuitions! Commented Feb 17, 2018 at 23:40
  • Hmm... so you didn't find any.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Feb 18, 2018 at 0:46
  • @Mari-LouA I didn't try. It's a semi-joke answer on a ridiculous Meta post. It doesn't need any more work nor attention. Commented Feb 18, 2018 at 0:51

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