of expressing the negative in English
When Mick Jagger famously sang
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
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
1.1 Negative forms of the
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.
(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
is used in the same way as not,
except when the verb is in the simple present or simple past tense.
there is no need to add a missing auxiliary using a form of do.
- He lives in London / He does not
live in London
- I can
see you / I cannot
/ I can't
- I like
those photos / I don't like
any of those photos
- The man lost
all his money / The man did
lose all his money
should eat (some) more chocolate / I shouldn't eat
(any) more chocolate.
ought to have gone home / You ought not
to have gone home.
may be able to finish in time / I may
be able to finish in time.
For more details and more examples, see pages on the Present tenses, on Modal verbs of ability, and Modal verbs of obligation.
- He plays
tennis / He never
tennis. (but not He does never
- I saw
the Queen yesterday / I never saw
been to London . / I' ve
eat a lot of chocolate / You should
never eat a lot of chocolate.
have done that / You ought never
to have done that.
be able to finish this. / I may
be able to finish this.
See also page on to
between the different forms
of the negative with to
as a main verb or as an auxiliary.
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
- Not many
people came to the concert last night.
- It's still pretty poor, and not
much better than it used to be
Negation using a noun or
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.
is sometimes combined with -one,
etc. to make negative indefinite pronouns, noone,
nobody, nothing, nowhere, etc.
of" is used in the same way as no, except that it
is followed by a definite article or another determiner
grow on the moon / No
grow on the moon.
- I can see someone
/ I cannot see
anyone / I can see noone.
/ The man lost no time
should eat more chocolate
/ I should eat no more
in that box / There's nothing
in that box.
were able to finish the race/ No
were able to finish the race.
For more on negation with nouns, see §3.3 on Some
and Any as quantifiers
were able to finish the race/ None
the riders were able to finish the race.
are clean / None of
your shoes are clean.
- I like those photos / I
of those photos.
- Did you eat some chocolates? / Did
you eat none
of the chocolates ?
Negation using an adverb
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 whiskey /
You can do without
- He's walking with
/ He's walking without a
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
are used to link a pair of negative pronouncements.
can be used by itself to introduce the second of a pair
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.
introduces a second main clause, the
subject and the auxiliary or modal are inverted. See examples
2 to 5 below.
- He neither
looks like a gentleman, nor talks like a
- I can neither
see it nor
- I didn't
agree with what he said. Nor
did I believe him.
- I haven't
eaten for three days; nor have I slept.
- They can't
find the problem; nor can
they explain why it happened.
- I like neither
your appearance nor your attitude.
the President nor the Prime minister was (were) present.
- I could convince him neither with my arguments nor
with my warnings.
- You should wash this in water, but neither with soap nor with
5 . Negation using
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
- 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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