Verbal Negation

Understanding Verbal Negation

NEGATION Opens in new window (we've learnt in the preceding 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 this study we focus exclusively on Verbal Negation.

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

There are two types of verbal negation, primary verb negation and secondary verb negation. They differ in the form of the verb with which not is used.


Primary verb negation refers to the use of not to negate a clause that contains a present or past tense verb. In the negative aspect of the sentences below, for instance, the affirmative not is used with the tensed verbs are and lived respectively.

Primary verb negation takes the following diverse forms:

1.  Statements with Auxiliary Verbs

If the affirmative form of a sentence has one or more auxiliary verbsOpens in new window or modal auxiliariesOpens in new window (such as can Opens in new window or should Opens in new window), not comes after the first auxiliary, as the negative sentences below demonstrate. The examples in the negative segment demonstrates that not contracts with auxiliary verbs and modals.

2.  Statements with Copular Be

Negation for sentences with copular be operates just like negation for sentences with auxiliary verbs Opens in new window; that is, not is inserted following the verbal element as the following set of constructions show. Note that not contracts with copular be as well, as in the last series of the examples below.

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3.  Statements with No Auxiliary Verb or Copular Be

If there is no auxiliary verb or copular be present in the affirmative version of a sentence, then an auxiliary verb must be added to make negation Opens in new window work properly. This can be achieved by inserting the appropriate form of do, as shown below.

Note that not comes after do and may contract with it. The main verb must be in its bare infinitive form while do carries the tense Opens in new window.

In American English, sentences with the main verb have (not the auxiliary verb have) are usually negated as shown in the last child of the preceding set of examples; they take do + not. Have without do, as shown below, is slightly more common in British English.

Negative imperative sentences, shown in the following examples, also require the use of do not before the main verb (See Imperative Sentences Opens in new window to learn more of this particular usage).

4.  Yes/No Questions

In negative yes/no questions Opens in new window, the auxiliary verb Opens in new window, which has been moved to the beginning of the sentence Opens in new window by subject-aux inversion Opens in new window, contracts with not, as shown in the first three examples below.

In yes/no questions with no auxiliary verb, not is contracted with do, as in the last child of the above set of examples. (Learn more on yes/no questions Opens in new window.) Uncontracted forms such as Is he not coming? are occasionally heard.

5.  Tag Questions

Opposite polarity tag questions with positive stems always have contracted negative tags, as shown below.

Negating the stem of an opposite polarity tag question results in a positive tag, as shown in the affirmative statements above. (see Tag Questions Opens in new window to flex your knowledge in them.)

6.  Wh– Questions

In negative wh– questions Opens in new window, not can contract with auxiliaries after the initial wh– question word. When contraction occurs, the contracted form follows the wh– word. When contraction does not occur, not follows the subject. Survey the following:

Negative/Positive Polarity Items and Verbal Negation

As shown in one example in heading number 2 (statement with copular be), the affirmative sentence contains the noun phrase some milk, while the corresponding negative sentence reads any milk. This same shift from some to any is illustrated below:

Any is one of a set of words that can appear in negative statements but normally do not appear in affirmative statements. This restriction on the use of any can be seen if we remove not from a negative sentence as shown in the first example below. The resulting positive statement in the second is ungrammatical.

Words such as any, which normally occur only in negative statements but are themselves not negative, are called negative polarity items. The set of words and expressions formed with any (i.e., anybody, anything, any longer, anymore, anyone, anywhere) also belong to this group.

Words such as some, on the other hand, normally occur only in positive statements and are therefore referred to as positive polarity items. Other members of this set are somebody, someone, something, somewhat, and somehow. Survey the examples shown below.

The negative polarity items anymore and any longer have a corresponding positive polarity item, still. Notice that negating the verb as shown in the first example in the following series with doesn’t produces the second example, which is ungrammatical.

The negative polarity item yet has a corresponding positive polarity item, already, as shown here:

A list of other words that are typically used only in negative sentences are shown below.

These negative polarity items do not have corresponding positive polarity items.

Negative and positive items also appear in corresponding ways in secondary verb negation, which will be addressed subsequently.


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.

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:

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.

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.

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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.

Negative raising moves not up into the main clause Opens 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 sentence Opens 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.

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.

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 Negative Opens 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.

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.

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.

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