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Linguapress English Grammar

The negative in English

Different ways of expressing negation in English

Index : Negative verb forms Negatives with nouns Negative adverb phrases
Neither... nor Negative adjectives Tag questions

Double negatives

When Mick Jagger famously sang
   I can't get no satisfaction....
he was not helping students of English.  Jagger was using what we call a "double negative": and the logical result of a double negative is really an affirmative statement.  Just as mathematicians know that -1 x -1 = +1.
   Double negatives are quite common in slang and in spoken English; but they are not acceptable in written English.  The expression I can't get no satisfaction  – which thus technically means I can get satisfaction – is however a useful example, as it shows us that there is more than one way of transforming an affirmative statement into a negative statement. In fact there are several ways.
Negation can be expressed by :
 1) Adding a negative particle to the verb, or
 2) Adding negation to a noun or pronoun, or
 3) Using a negative adverbial phrase.
 4) Using neither and nor when there are two expressions to be negated
 5) Adding a negative prefix or suffix to an adjective
But doing two of these at the same time will produce a double negative, so theoretically an affirmation, as in the example.  To be avoided.

1.1 Negative forms of the verb 

In most cases a negative meaning is given to a verb by adding the negative verbal particle NOT.  In some cases, not is replaced by never.

Negative structures

"Not" (sometimes shortened to n't) normally follows the principal auxiliary or modal verb in a verbal structure.  In the few cases where there is no auxiuliary or modal (present simple or past simple affirmative tenses), it follows a reconstituted auxiliary, do or did. The choice between not and n't is a matter of style. Not is generally preferred in written English, n't in spoken English
  • He lives in London  /  He does not live in London
  • I can see you   / I cannot see you  / I can't see you
  • I like those photos / I don't like any of those photos
  • The man lost all his money /  The man did not lose all his money
  • I should eat (some) more chocolate / I shouldn't eat (any) more chocolate.
  • You ought to have gone home / You ought not to have gone home.
  • I may be able to finish in time  / I may not be able to finish in time.
"Never" is used in the same way as not, except when the verb is in the simple present or simple past tense. With never, there is no need to add a missing auxiliary using a form of do.
  • He plays tennis  /  He never plays tennis.  (but not He does never play
  • I saw the Queen yesterday   / I never saw the Queen yesterday.
  • I've been to London .   / I' ve never been to London.
  • You should eat a lot of chocolate / You should never eat a lot of chocolate.
  • You ought to have done that / You ought never to have done that.
  • I may be able to finish this.  / I may never be able to finish this.
For more details and more examples, see pages on the Present tenses, on Modal verbs of ability, and Modal verbs of obligation.

  See also page on to have for important distinctions between the different forms of the negative with to have as a main verb or as an auxiliary.  (When to use haven't and when to use don't have, for example)

1.2. Not many and not much

The particle not can also be added to the quantifiers much or many, to form the small-quantity quantifiers not much or not many. 
  • Not many people came to the concert last night.
  • It's still pretty poor, and not much better than it used to be

2 . Negation using a noun or pronoun 

Less frequently, a negative meaning may be implied by attaching a negative particle to a noun group, either the subject or the direct object of a sentence.  In this case, the negative particle that is used is no.  No is sometimes combined with -one, -thing, -where, etc. to make negative indefinite pronouns, noone, nobody, nothing, nowhere, etc.
  • Trees grow on the moon   /  No trees grow on the moon.
  • I can see someone   / I cannot see anyone  / I can see noone.
  • The man lost time /  The man lost no time 
  • I should eat more chocolate / I should eat no more chocolate.
  • There's something in that box / There's nothing in that box.
  • The riders were able to finish the race/  No riders were able to finish the race.
"None of" is used in the same way as no, except that it is followed by a definite article or another determiner
  • The riders were able to finish the race/  None of the riders were able to finish the race.
  • Your shoes are clean /  None of your shoes are clean.
  • I like those photos  /  I like none of those photos.
  • Did you eat some chocolates?  / Did you eat none of the chocolates ?
For more on negation with nouns, see §3.3 on Some and Any as quantifiers

3 . Negation using an adverb phrase 

It is also possible to add a negative meaning to a sentence, by including an adverb phrase with a negative meaning.  The most common group of negative adverbial phrases are formed using the word without, or a preposition followed by no.
  • You can have some whisky  /  You can do without whisky.
  • He's walking with a stick  / He's walking without a stick 
  • He did it for a good reason /  He did it for no reason at all. 
  • I want you to do it with me /   I want you to do it without me.

4 . Neither and nor - linking two negative statements 

"Neither" and "nor" are used to link a pair of negative pronouncements.  Nor can be used by itself to introduce the second of a pair of negative statements, even if a normal "not" structure is used in the first one. Neither and nor can be attached to verbs, or to nouns (subjects or objects), or even to prepositional phrases.
   When nor introduces a second main clause, the subject and the auxiliary or modal are inverted.  See examples  2 to 5 below.
  1. He neither looks like a gentleman, nor talks like a gentleman
  2. I can neither see it nor hear it.
  3. I didn't agree with what he said.  Nor did I believe him.
  4. I haven't eaten for three days; nor have I slept.
  5. They can't find the problem; nor can they explain why it happened.
  6. I like neither your appearance nor your attitude.
  7. Neither the President nor the Prime minister was (were) present.
  8. I could convince him neither with my arguments nor with my warnings.
  9. You should wash this in water, but neither with soap nor with detergent.

5 . Negation using negative adjectives 

An affirmative statement can be turned into a negative statement by adding a negative prefix or suffix to an appropriate adjective.
  • This is possible  > This is impossible.
  • You are being very cooperative  >  You are being very uncooperative.
  • The border guards were friendly  >  The border guards were unfriendly.
  • I'm very pleased with my results  >  I'm very displeased with my results.
  • He's being very sensible  >  He's being very senseless.

6 . Tag questions 

Negative tags attached to the end of affirmative statements have the structure and appearance of negative questions, but they do not really express a negative value, and they are not really questions ; they are essentially an expression of minor doubt, or a means of requesting confirmation of a statement or an opinion.  
For more on this, see Tag questions.
  • You're coming, aren't you ?
  • This is the right road, isn't it ?
  • We'll get to the airport on time, won't we.
  • You managed to get everything on the shopping list, haven't you ?
  • We must give them a nice present, mustn't we ?
  • We'll be able to get our money back if it breaks, won't we ?

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