Nonverbal Negation

Understanding Nonverbal Negation

Negation Opens in new window (we've learnt in the beginning of the study) refers to the process of forming negative sentences, as opposed to affirmative sentences. Also we learnt that there are two forms of negation: verbal and nonverb negation. In the preceding study we addressed Verbal Negation. Here we are focusing our attention exclusively on Nonverbal Negation.

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–. The set of sentences below illustrates nonverbal negation.

There are basically two forms of nonverbal negation. The first involves the use of certain negative words; the second involves the use of negative affixes.

Within the remainder of the study, we'll look extensively at ways of using both.

1.   Negative Words

The most grammatically complex method of nonverbal negation is through the use of a set of negative words, some common examples are presented below.

nonobodynothingno placenor
noneno onenowhereneithernever

Some negative words, such as neither/nor, are correlative conjunctions Opens in new window and have a connecting function. Others, such as nowhere and no place, are adverbs Opens in new window.

Sentences with these negative words can often be paraphrased using verbal negation as shown below.

Note that in the sentences in the right-hand column, not has been added, and the negative word has been replaced by a negative polarity item (e.g., any, anything, either, and ever). Survey.

Nonverbal NegationVerbal Negation
  • He revealed no information.
  • He didn’t reveal any information.
  • She chose none of them.
  • She didn’t choose any of them.
  • They did nothing to stop him.
  • They didn’t do anything to stop him.
  • We were going nowhere.
  • We weren’t going anywhere.
  • We knew neither of them.
  • We didn’t know either of them.
  • She had never done that before.
  • She hadn’t ever done that before.
  • There is no news.
  • There isn’t any news.

“Double Negative” with Negative Words

In some dialects of British and American English, sentences with so-called double negatives are common. A sentence Opens in new window is said to have a double negative Opens in new window when it either has more than one negative word, such as the first example in the following series, or it contains not plus one or more negative words, such the second and third.

Each item in the above constructions has a counterpart with verbal negation and any, as shown in below.

Speakers of Standard English (the dialect of English commonly used in newspapers, textbooks, news programs, academic discourse, etc.) might label the former (first) set of sentences ungrammatical. However, it is important for learners to understand that these sentences are perfectly acceptable in some English dialects.

A common, erroneous assumption is that these sentences are somehow illogical because they contain two negatives, and two negatives make a positive. While this is true in logic, it is not true in grammar. In fact, many language of the world use double negatives to express negation.

Furthermore, most speakers of Standard English would have no problem understanding these sentences to be negative statements. However, learners should be aware that the disadvantage of using double negative sentences is they may be judged as speaking “uneducated” English by speakers of the standard dialect.

Not in Nonverbal Negation

Not appears before words other than verbs — for example, quantifiers, adjectives, and adverbs — as a form of nonverbal negation. Different meanings are produced, depending upon the element that not precedes.

When not appears before the quantifiers all, every, many, and much, as in set of examples, the resulting implied meaning is some or a limited amount of.

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Not one before a noun can mean “not nay,” “no,” or “none,” as shown below:

The same meaning can be converted by not a single, as shown below.

Similarly, not preceding a number + ago can mean “less than” that numbers as shown below.

When not precedes a little or a few and a noun, the resulting meaning is the opposite of a little or a few, as shown below.

When not precedes an adjective with a negative prefix, such as un– or in–, the meaning is “somewhat,” or “to a certain degree.”

Note that adjectives that can appear in the construction as above have to be gradable (i.e., capable of taking comparable and superlative suffices –er and –est or the comparative words more and most).

Not often is a negative adverbial phrase, similar to negative frequency adverbs never, rarely, seldom, and only. When any of these forms occurs at the beginning of a sentence, the rule of subject-aux inversion must apply, as shown in these two examples:

Failure to apply subject-aux inversion will produce an ungrammatical results as shown below:

2.  Negative Affixes

Lexical items (words) can also undergo nonverbal negation, and this is done by attaching affixes to them. Negation by affixation is parallel to verbal negation, as shown below.

English has many prefixes. The common negative prefixes are un–, in–, im–, il–, ir–, dis–, a–, and non–. They may be attached to adjectives, adverbs, nouns, and in some cases verbs, as the examples in the following table show.

Negative Affixes

Certain English adjectives derive from Latin, and lexical negation in Latin involved variations of the prefix in– that were conditioned by the first sound in the root word. Thus, the prefix in– became im– when it was attached to adjectives or nouns beginning with the bilabial consonants /b/, /p/, and /m/ (imbalance, impossible, immobile), and il– and ir– were attached to adjectives beginning with vowels (inappropriate). This prefix is now unproductive; that is, we cannot form any new words with the in–/im–/il–/ir– prefix; we are restricted to the words that have been handed down to us.

Today, the most productive negative prefix is un–. It appears before adjectives beginning with consonants that should theoretically take the prefixes in– and im– (unbelievable, unproductive, undeserved, unmanageable).

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One measure of the productivity of un– is that it is replacing il– with some adjectives. For instance, illimitable (“not capable of being limited; immeasurable”) is usually rendered as unlimitable. The prefix un– also conflicts with im– for attachment to words having the same stem (e.g., the noun imbalance vs. the adjective unbalanced).

In many cases, therefore, the sound of the root is of limited help in determining a correct negative prefix. You will often hear native speakers produce negative adjectives with un– that should actually have a different prefix, (e.g., *an unhospitable environment, *an undefesible position).

Note also that the prefix un– has another meaning, “to undo or reverse the action” when used with verbs such as tie, wrap, seal, and fasten. This use is often mentioned in ESL materials.

Non– is prefixed to adjectives and increasingly to nouns. We hear creations, such as nonstarter, every day. It has been observed that some negative prefixes impart a pejorative or evaluative meaning when attached to stems, whereas others impart a purely descriptive meaning.

For example, dysfunctional implies criticism or fault, whereas non-functional is essentially a descriptive adjective that means “not functioning.” Similarly, unprofessional describes conduct that deviates from normal professional standards, but nonprofessional simply implies that someone is not a professional in a particular field.

A number of other prefixes, such as anti– counter–, mal–, and mis–, are sometimes cited as negative prefixes, but these meanings are usually not purely negative. For example, antiwar means “against war” and counterintuitive means “against intuition” or “the opposite of intuitive.” Maladroit means more than “not adroit”; it also means “clumsy” or “awkward,” and malformed means “abnormally formed.”

Mis– is applied to verbs and adjectives and nouns derived from verbs. In each case, the resulting meaning is “incorrect” (e.g., misapply means “incorrectly apply,” misleading means “giving the incorrect impression”). Similarly, the suffix –less is often cited as a negative suffix, but its meaning is actually “without” (e.g., limitless means “without limit,” shameless means “without shame”).

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