Negation

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    1 Forming of Negation

    There are several options when it comes to forming negation in English:

    We can use auxiliary verbs (be, do, have) along with NOT (I do not play handball.). Negative pronouns (e.g. nobody), or words which are negative in meaning (e.g. inexperienced). The English language always needs more words for everything and is not able to get by only with prefixes and suffixes. No worries though, forming a negation in not hard at all. We are going to have a look at some examples to see how each type of negation is formed:

    1.1 Negation Formed with Auxiliary Verbs and “NOT”

    Imagine that we like apples, so we say:

    • We like apples.

    And if we don’t like apples, we express it by putting “not” before the verb “like”. However, “not” can’t stand alone (we can’t say We not like apples) and that’s when an auxiliary verb comes in. In this case, it’s the auxiliary verb “do” which we use with verbs in the present simple tense. The whole negative sentence will look like this:

    • We do not like apples.

    If we use do as a lexical verb, it can stand on its own, however, when we are forming a negation, we need it as an auxiliary verb as well:

    • I do not do sports.

    If we talk about emotional states (happiness, sadness etc) and we say: “I am”, we use the verb be:

    • I am happy.

    In situations like this, we don’t need any auxiliary verb and so we only use not:

    • I am not happy.

    We do not say I do not be happy or I do not am happy.

    If we use modal verbs (expressing ability, permission, certainty) – again, we only need not:

    • She cannot swim.
    • He may not go there.

    It’s not possible to say:
    She does not can swim or He does not may go there.

    Which auxiliary verb to choose?

    As you may know, each auxiliary verb has its specific function. This function determines which verb we choose to form the negation. All auxiliary verbs form the negation with the help of not:

    The auxiliary verb do helps us to form negation in present simple and past simple tense (for the past tense we use its past participle did, and in the present tense, don’t forget to add the ending -s in the third person):

    • I do not eat chicken meat.
    • I did not eat any chicken meat yesterday.
    • He does not eat chicken meat.

    Auxiliary verb be helps us to form the negation in present continuous and past continuous (for the past continuous we use was/were and for the present continuous am/are/is based on the person used in the sentence).

    • I am not laughing.
    • You are not running.
    • I was not hiding.
    • We were not cooking.

    Lastly, we will have a look at the auxiliary verb have which helps us with the forming of the negation in present perfect tense and past perfect tense (we can’t forget to add the ending -s in the third person in the present perfect, in the past perfect, we can’t forget the past participle had):

    • I have not stolen the car.
    • He has not been studying since yesterday.
    • They had not left.
    • He had not been laughing.

    We went through the auxiliary verbs and how to use them in negation because each one has its specific function which can’t be changed. It is not possible to say:

    • I do not running.
      or
    • I am not eat fish.

    Now, let’s have a look at the negation in all English tenses:

    TenseExample Sentence
    Present simpleI do not/don't drive.
    Present continuousI am not driving.
    Past simpleI did not/didn't drive.
    Past continuous I was not/wasn't driving.
    Future simpleI will not/won't drive.
    Future continuousI will not/won't be driving.

    TenseExample Sentence
    Present perfect simpleI have not/haven't driven.
    Present perfect continuousI have not/haven't been driving.
    Past perfect simpleI had not/hadn't driven.
    Past perfect continuousI had not/hadn't been driving.
    Future perfect simpleI will not/won't have driven.
    Future perfect continuousI will not/won't have been driving.

    1.2 Grammatical Negation

    You probably know that English does not allow more than one negation in a sentence. So, if there is a negative word, for example the pronoun nothing, we don’t add any other negative:

    • I do not have nothing!.

    This way of forming the negation is not possible in English. We have two options of forming the correct sentence.

    If we want to keep the pronoun nothing in negation, we can’t add any other negative word, i.e.:

    • I have nothing.

    However, if we use an auxiliary verb with not to form the negation, we don’t need the negative pronoun anymore and so we have to change it into a non-assertive item = we change no- to any-:

    • I do not have anything.

    Forming non-assertive items isn’t difficult at all. Let’s look at an overview concerning their formation:

    Positive verb + negationNegative verb + non-assertive item
    I can see nothing.I can't see anything.
    I heard nobody.I didn't hear anybody.
    I have no car.I don't have a car.
    I would never do it.I wouldn't ever do it.
    I can take this no more.I can’t take this any more.

    1.3 Lexical Negation

    This is a type of negation we recognize in words that sound negative or indicate something negative, e.g. unimportant. The rules for lexical negation are the same as in the point above. These are usually words with negative prefixes in-, im-, dis- etc. And so, if we use this kind of word in a sentence, we don’t need any other negative item:

    • He is impatient.

    If there already is negation in the sentence (not), we have to remove the negative prefix of the negative word to make it positive in meaning:

    • He is not patient.

    If we didn’t do that, we would get a positive meaning as a result:

    • He is not impatient. = He is patient.

    2 Double Negation in an English Sentence

    We have spoken about single negation in English more than enough. So, is it true that we really can’t use more than one negation in an English sentence? Well, it’s not entirely true. Let’s have a look at some examples where we can use double or multiple negation:

    2.1 Negative concord

    Negative concord is a term that means that there is a possibility to use more than one negative item to form a negation so that the sentence as a whole has a negative meaning.
    In the paragraph about negative pronouns and adverbs, we have explained why there is not more than one negation possible and so the negative concord can be heard in colloquial and informal language:

    • I ain’t never lost nothing.

    The word ani’t used in colloquial English substitutes the auxiliary verbs + not: am not, is not, are not, has not, have not. However, from the previous paragraphs, we know that a grammatically correct sentence should look like this:

    • I have never lost anything.

    2.2 Double Negation

    Another option to have more than one negation in a sentence is called double negation. In this case, the whole sentence changes its meaning into a positive one because the two negative items cancel out one another:

    • I do not have nothing to do.

    This sentence indicates that it’s not like we aren’t busy doing nothing, we actually have something to do. The sentence would usually have a specific intonation, which emphasizes the negative word “nothing” to express that we have something to do.

    • It was not possible not to help him.

    Here we emphasize again that we just had to help that person at all costs – we felt the need to help them.

    • It is not unimportant.

    If we say that something is not unimportant, we actually mean it is very important – by double negation we emphasize the importance of the issue. The two negatives cancel out one another to form a positive meaning.

    3 Shift of Negation

    In some sentences a negation shift may occur. It typically happens when the sentence contains a verb of perception (appear, seem, look, …) or verb which is giving an opinion/point of view (think, expect, believe, suppose, …). In these cases, we put the negation before the verb:

    E.g. we want to say that something is not right- It’s not right. Now, we want to say that we believe something is not right. There are two options:

    • We use the negation in the main clause – the clause which contains the verb of perception/giving opinion:
      I don’t believe it’s right.
    • It’s also possible not to shift the negation:
      I believe it’s not right

    However, the second option sounds strange and unnatural. It is more suitable for beginners who can understand it and use it easily. For the advanced students, we suggest using the first option only.

    • Let’s have a look at some more examples but now with verbs of perception. Let’s use a statement that something is supposedly not true. – It is not true. We want to say that something does not seem to be true:
      It doesn’t seem to be true.
    • We can use the second option as well but as was already mentioned it would sound unnatural:
      I seems not to be true.
    • There are also verbs where the shift of negation isn’t possible, e.g. guess:
      I guess it’s not correct.
      I don’t guess it’s correct.
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    Vendula Nedělová
    She completed her master's degree at the Faculty of Education, Charles University, specializing in English language, music culture, pedagogy, and social pedagogy. She has many years of experience in language teaching in the Czech Republic, USA, Indonesia and Germany. She works as a methodologist and coordinator of language courses in ONLINE learning, where she leads a team of lecturers and the creation of language courses for more than 137 000 students. Vendula follows the motto: “Learning should be fun, because if we enjoy what we do, then it makes sense”.