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Secondary verb negation refers to the use of the negative element not to negate a clause that has a verb in one of its secondary forms — that is, a verb in its infinitive, bare infinitive, present participle, or past participle form — and does not have a tensed verb.

Clauses That Take Secondary Negation

Secondary verb negation is most commonly applied to subordinate clauses, in which verbs often take a secondary form. For example, the affirmative sentence shown below includes an infinitive complement clause (in brackets), with a verb in its infinitive form.

  • She promised him [to come]
  • She promised him [not to come]

By contrast, the negative sentence shows what happens when not is placed before the infinitive. The meaning of the complement is changed from “she would come” to “she would not come.”

Survey the following affirmative sentences:

  • It’s important to be seen by someone.
  • She recommended that we buy it.
  • He hates hearing the truth.

By comparing the affirmative sentences shown above with their corresponding negative sentences below, you can see the effect of negating a verb in an infinitive complement as shown in the first example of the series, a that complement with the verb in its bare form in the second example, and a gerund complement with its verb in its present participle form in the third example.

  • It’s important “not” to be seen by someone.
  • She recommended that we “not” buy it.
  • He hates “not” hearing the truth.

Note that the first example also illustrates that positive and negative polarity items occur in clauses taking secondary verb negation.

In sentences with infinitive complements, such as shown in the last two series, many native speakers place not after to, as demonstrated below.

  • She promised him to “not” come.
  • It’s important to “not” be seen by anyone.

There is some debate about the acceptability of this alternative word order, since in secondary verb negation, not is supposed to premodify (precede) the verb phrase in the subordinate clause.

Many native speakers think that this alternative placement shown above is ungrammatical, but for others it is “acceptable,” that is, not quite as good as the position before the infinitive, but not ungrammatical either.

You should be aware of this division of opinion because you might be asked about the acceptability of the alternative placement.

Negative Raising

As the following examples show, the negative that complement is placed in brackets. When we apply the rule of negative raising to the first sentence, we get the second sentence. Survey.

  • I imagine [that he won’t want to come].
  • I don’t imagine [that he will want to come].

Negative raising moves not up into the main clauseOpens in new window of a sentence and combines it with an auxiliary or the appropriate form of do. While the verb associated with not changes, the meaning of the sentenceOpens in new window does not change.

As illustrated above, the negative raising rule can be applied to a sentence when the main verb expresses an opinion (i.e., think, believe, anticipate, expect, imagine, suppose, etc.) and the that clause contains a modal (should, could, will, etc.). Negative raising is also possible in sentences that have main verbs of appearance like appear and seem, as shown in the following two sets.

  • It appears [that we won’t win after all].
  • It doesn’t appear [that we will win after all].
  • It is likely [that John won’t come].
  • It isn’t likely [that John will come].

Although both patterns –not in the main clause and not in the that clause – have basically the same meaning, there appears to be a preference for the former, especially with verbs such as think. Hence, native speakers may be more likely to say, I don’t think he’s going rather than I think he’s not going.

Note that negative raising is not possible with sentences in which the main clause verb is not one of the types mentioned above. With other types of main clause changes the meaning of the sentence, as shown below.

  • We forgot that she doesn’t like him.
  • We didn’t forget that she likes him.

Additional Facts about Verbal Negation

The form of negation can differ from what we have already seen and other factors can significantly change the meaning of a negated sentence.

Multiple Negation

Multiple negation occurs when a clause contains more than two negative forms (See Double NegativeOpens in new window). For example, in the following sentence, not appears with the auxiliary verb could and the main verb respond. This is an example of independent multiple negation, in which two negatives make the statement positive.

  • I couldn’t not respond.

In this sentence, the speaker states that there was something that he or she could not do, and that was not respond. Thus, the sentence implies that the speaker did not respond. Sentences of this nature occur in spoken English; even imperatives may have not twice. Survey the following sentence.

  • Don’t not go because of me. (= You shouldn’t decide not to go because of me.)

In many cases, particularly if the first verb is a modal, the meaning could be expressed in a simpler fashion by an affirmative sentence such as those shown in parentheses in the following.

  • I didn’t not pay attention. (= I paid attention.)
  • She won’t not tell the truth. (= She will tell the truth.)
  • You can’t not go with them. (= You must go with them.)
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  • References
    • The Teacher's Grammar of English with Answers: A Course Book and Reference Guide (Negation [2008:88-96]) By Ron Cowan

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