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English Sentence Negation: How to Negate Sentences in English

Negation is the grammatical operation whereby a proposition is replaced by one that states the opposite. An affirmative form expresses the validity or truth of a basic assertion. A negative form expresses the falsity of a basic assertion. In the English language, sentences may be negated with the adverbs not and never, the determiner no, and the indefinite pronouns no one, nobody, and none as well as other negative words.

Negating Verb Phrases

Sentences in English can first be negated through verb phrase negation. Verb phrases in English can be negated by inserting the negative adverb not after the first auxiliary verb of the verb phrase or by inserting the operator do and the negative adverb not before the verb. For example, the following sentence pairs are examples of positive and negated English sentences in which the verb phrases are negated:

The students have aced the exam. (positive)
The students have not aced the exam. (negated)

Play with the baby. (positive)
Do not play with the baby. (negated)

Could you play your guitar? (positive)
Could you not play your guitar? (negated)

She will have earned her degree. (positive)
She will not have earned her degree. (negated)

You could have been eating your dessert by now. (positive)
You could not have been eating your dessert  by now. (negated)

Verb phrase negation with the adverb not is the preferred method for negation in English.

Negating Noun Phrases

Sentences in English can secondly be negated through noun phrase negation. Noun phrases in English can be negated by inserting the quantifying determiner no in front of the noun phrase. For example, the following sentence pairs are examples of positive and negated English sentences in which the noun phrases are negated:

I have time today. (positive)
I have no time today. (negated)

Dogs are allowed in my house. (positive)
No dogs are allowed in my house. (negated)

The store will sell food. (positive)
The store will sell no food. (negated)

Credit cards are accepted at the market. (positive)
No credit cards are accepted at the market. (negated)

There are storms in the weather forecast. (positive)
There are no storms in the weather forecast. (negated)

Although possible, there are limitations to noun phrase negation. Only plural, noncount, and collective nouns can be negated with the quantifier no. Plural nouns indicate more than one of the noun as in cats and books. Noncount nouns are defined as nouns that are not usually counted and do not have plural forms as in rice and deer. Collective nouns are defined as nouns that name groups as in coven and family.

Negating Adjective Phrases

Sentences in English can thirdly be negated through adjective phrase negation. Adjective phrases in English can be negated by inserting the negative adverb not in front of the adjective phrase. For example, the following sentence pairs are examples of positive and negated English sentences in which the adjective phrases are negated:

The man is tall. (positive)
The man is not tall. (negated)

My mother was pregnant. (positive)
My mother was not pregnant. (negated)

Her boss was unfriendly. (positive)
Her boss was not unfriendly. (negated)

He is a wonderful person. (positive)
He is not a wonderful person. (negated)

She is an unhappy baby. (positive)
She is not an unhappy baby. (negated)

Adjective phrase negation most often occurs when the adjective phrase is part of a subject complement.

Other English Negations

Other words in English can also form negated sentences. Other English negations include negative indefinite pronouns such as no one, nobody, and none and the negative adverbs never. Other negation words also include nowhere, nothing, hardly, and scarcely. For example, the following sentences pairs are examples of positive and negated English sentences that contain other negative words:

She bought someone a present. (positive)
She bought no one a present. (negated)

Somebody called for you. (positive)
Nobody called for you. (negated)

I have some. (positive)
I have none. (negated)

The custodian has always forgotten to empty my trash. (positive)
The custodian has never forgotten to empty my trash. (negated)

Always knock before entering. (positive)
Never knock before entering. (negated)

The indefinite pronouns someone, somebody, and some are often used as the opposites of no one, nobody, and none and the adverb always as the opposite of never.

Double Negatives

Most Germanic languages including English proscribe against the use of double negatives. However, double negatives appear in both spoken and written English in all but the most formal registers. Be aware of the presence of double negatives as well as triple or more negatives in some forms of the English language. For example:

I don’t have any.
I have none.
I don’t have none.

Don’t go anywhere.
Go nowhere.
Don’t go nowhere.

Do nothing ever.
Do something never.
Don’t do something ever.
Don’t do nothing never.

References

Hopper, Paul J. A Short Course in Grammar. W.W. Norton & Company: New York, 1999.

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