UNDERSTANDING negation to form negative sentences

NEGATION refers to the process of forming negative sentences, as opposed to sentences that are affirmative, as:

  • √  She is not at the office vs. She is at the office.

In English, negative sentences are quite useful in a variety of ways. For instance, a negative sentence can be used to make an assertion that something will not happen. Survey the example below.

  • √  I won’t be able to make the next meeting.

Negative sentences can also deny the truth of something that has been said. A typical example of this is shown below.

    Speaker A:
  • √  Julian writes well
  • Speaker B:
  • √  (I don't agree) Julian doesn’t write well

A negative sentence can also function as a refusal. In the following example, speaker B refuses speaker A’s offer.

  • Speaker A: Would you like another cup of tea?
  • Speaker B: No, thank you.

Forms of negation

There are two principal types of negation: verbal and nonverbal.


Verbal Negation uses the negative element not with a verb to negate an affirmative statement. This is exemplified below:

    Affirmative Statement
  • √  Yvonne is very happy.
  • Negative Statement with Not
  • √  Yvonne isn’t very happy.

Verbal negationOpens in new window can in turn be divided into two types, primary and secondary verb negation. They differ in the form of the verb with which not is used.

Primary verb negation uses not with a verb that is in the present or past tense (simple present/past, present/past progressive, etc.). The not appears after or is contracted with an auxiliary verbOpens in new window, a modal auxiliaryOpens in new window, or a copular beOpens in new window in statements and questions, as:

  • √  She can come, can’t she?
  • √  She hasn’t been here.
  • √  She cannot come.
  • √  Who isn’t coming?

Not appears after do or is contracted with do in statements, questions, and imperative sentencesOpens in new window that do not have an auxiliaryOpens in new window, a modalOpens in new window, or a copular beOpens in new window. Survey the following:

  • √  She does not like sports.
  • √  Don’t you want one?
  • √  Don’t touch that button!

Secondary verb negation uses not with verbs in their bare infinitive, infinitiveOpens in new window, past participleOpens in new window, and gerundOpens in new window forms, and it typically is applied in subordinate clauses.

Not appears before the verb, and do is never inserted. Survey the following:

  • √  It’s important not to be nervous.
  • √  I suggest that you not stand here.
  • √  They walked away not knowing what the future held.

Important Hint!  

Primary and secondary verb negation are lengthy in scope and obviously exceed the coverage of this study. However, they are exclusively addressed at length in a designated entry (See Verbal NegationOpens in new window).


Nonverbal Negation involves the use of words such as nobody, nothing, no, none, neither/nor, and never or the use of negative affixes such as un– and non– (See Nonverbal NegationOpens in new window to learn in-depth).

The set of sentences below illustrates nonverbal negation.

  • √  He did nothing.
  • √  There is no milk in the fridge.
  • √  Luisa has never been there.

In nonverbal negationOpens in new window, positive polarity items with some must be shifted to corresponding negative polarity items with any in sentences with verbal negationOpens in new window.

Negative statements with any can often be changed into sentencesOpens in new window with a negative word. Survey the following:

  • √  He knows something. He doesn’t know anything. (= He knows nothing.)
  • √  She has some money. She doesn’t have any money. (= She has no money.)

Not appears before words including quantifiersOpens in new window, frequency adverbsOpens in new window such as often, numbers and adjectivesOpens in new window as a form of nonverbal negation. Survey the following examples:

  • √  Not all of the news was well received.
  • √  It’s not often that you see something like that.
  • √  I was talking on the phone to him not five minutes ago.
  • √  It is not uncommon for me to write multiple drafts.

Negative affixes are attached to adjectives, adverbs, nouns, and verbs to negate them. All these shared so far are merely a highlight of nonverbal negation. They are addressed at length hereOpens in new window.

Scope of negation

Linguists and grammarians often talk about the scope of negation. The term scope here simply refers to the part of the meaning of a sentenceOpens in new window that is negated. In an affirmative sentenceOpens in new window with a single verb, such as shown below,

  • √  Tom knew my father.

The addition of not after the first auxiliary element changes the meaning of the whole sentence, so the scope of negation is the entire sentence, as shown below,

  • √  Tom did not know my father.

However, when the sentence contains a subordinate clause, the scope of negation can be all or part of the sentence. The following examples contain a subordinate clause (the that complement in brackets).

  • √  Tom didn’t say [that he knew my father].
  • √  Tom said [that he didn’t know my father].

The scope of negation in the first example is the entire sentence Tom said that he knew my father, because not combines with the verb clause say. However, in the second example, the scope is limited to the subordinate clause, that he knew my father, because not combines with the verb know in this clause.

Changes in the Relative Scope of Negation

In the example that follows, the scope of the negation is the entire sentence. This is because, as we saw in the previous examples, the not change the meaning of its corresponding affirmative sentence in the next sentence.

  • √  Tom did not destroy the evidence.
  • √  Tom destroyed the evidence.

With adverbs like deliberately, expressly, intentionally, knowingly, on purpose, purposely, and willfully, the scope of negation is different, depending on whether the adverb is before not, as in the first example below, or after it, as in the second example. The position of the adverb causes both statements to have different meanings. Survey.

  • √  Tom deliberately did not destroy the evidence.
  • √  Tom didn’t deliberately destroy the evidence.

The meaning of the first example is “Tom acted deliberately in not destroying the evidence.” Here, Tom did not destroy the evidence.

The meaning of second example is “Tom did not act deliberately in destroying the evidence.” In this case, Tom did destroy the evidence, but not on purpose.

Stress Can Focus Negation

In negative sentencesOpens in new window, heavy stress on a particular word implies that the stressed word is the focus of negation. In the first example in the series below, the scope of negation is the entire sentence. But by stressing your, as in the second, we focus the negation on that word. The sentence then implies that there may be other children who hate school, but yours do not.

  • √  Your children don’t hate school.
  • √  YOUR children don’t hate school.

Moving the stress to children, as in the following example, implies that someone else related to you may hate school (e.g., your parents, your husband), but your children do not.

  • √  Your CHILDREN don’t hate school.

As the next example show, placing the stress on the verb implies that your children don’t actually hate school, but they might not like it.

  • √  Your children don’t HATE school.

Heavy stress on school, as shown below, implies that your children do not hate school, but they do hate something else, for example, homework.

  • √  Your children don’t hate SCHOOL.