When we want to say that something is not true or is not the case, we can use negative words, phrases or clauses. Negation can happen in a number of ways, most commonly, when we use a negative word such as no, not, never, none, nobody, etc:
Is there a bus at ten o’clock?B:
No. The last one goes at nine forty-five. (No = There isn’t a bus at ten o’clock.)
Kieran doesn’t play the piano. (It is not true that Kieran plays the piano.)
The most common negative words are no and not. Other negative words include:
neither, never, no one, nobody, none, nor, nothing, nowhere:
She’s never been abroad.
There were no newspapers left in the shop by one o’clock.
Nobody came to the house for several days.
None of my cousins live near us.
Most children don’t walk to school any more.
We can also make negative meanings using prefixes (e.g. de-, dis-, un-) and suffixes (-less):
He was very disrespectful to the teacher.
This new printer is useless; it’s always breaking down.
We can also use the following words to make negative or negative-like statements:
few, hardly, little, rarely, scarcely, seldom.
There are rarely ducks in this pond.
We seldom hear any noise at night.
Negation is more common in spoken than in written language because negative forms can be used in face-to-face interactions to make what we say less direct:
I’m not sure if this is the right desk. I’m looking for information on the train times to Liverpool. (less direct than Is this the right desk?)
Forming negative statements, questions and imperatives
We form negative statements with not or n’t after be, modal and auxiliary verbs. n’t is the contracted form of not. In informal language we can add n’t, without a space, to be, to modal verbs (except may) and to auxiliary verbs (do and have). The negative contracted form of will is won’t. The uncontracted form of can + not is cannot.
Jan isn’t coming. She’s not feeling very well.
She might not be joking. It could be true.
They don’t go to school on Wednesday afternoons.
Living in a small flat does not make it easy to have pets.
I hadn’t decided whether to take the train or go in the car.
They can’t be hungry again. They’ve only just eaten.
We use not or n’t to form negative questions. When there is no modal verb or be, we use auxiliary verb do + n’t (don’t, do not, doesn’t, does not, didn’t):
Why didn’t you ask Linda?
What don’t you understand?
Won’t we able to see the film?
Isn’t that Mike’s brother?
We use do + not or don’t + the base form of a verb to form negative orders or commands:
Do not open until instructed.
Don’t take the car. Go on your bike.
Negation: two negatives
Standard English does not have two negatives in the same clause (double negatives). Words such as never, nobody, no one, none, nothing, nowhere, etc. already have a negative meaning, so we don’t need another negative with the verb:
There was no one in the office so I left a message.
There wasn’t no one…
Nobody likes to think they are worthless.
Nobody doesn’t like to think…
If we use not with the verb, we use words such as ever, anybody, anyone, anything, anywhere, instead of never, nobody, no one, nothing, nowhere:
I haven’t seen Ken anywhere today. In fact I don’t think anyone’s seen him for the last couple of days.
I haven’t seen Ken nowhere… or I don’t think no one’s seen him…
You may hear some speakers using two negatives in the same clause, but many people consider this to be incorrect.
Not … I don’t think
There are some cases where we can use reporting verbs such as imagine, suppose and think in end position, after the reported clause. In such cases, both clauses may have a negative verb:
He’s not a teacher, I don’t think. (or I don’t think he’s a teacher.)
I don’t think he’s not a teacher.
I won’t be very late tonight, I shouldn’t imagine. (or I shouldn’t imagine I’ll be very late tonight.)
I shouldn’t imagine I won’t be late.
Sometimes we use not in front position where a following reduced clause (a clause with something omitted but which is understood) also has a negative form:
Have you seen Leila?B:
Not today, I haven’t. (I haven’t seen Leila/her.)
Is Tony working at the university?B:
Not now, he isn’t. He used to.
Negative clauses with any, anybody, anyone, anything, anywhere
We don’t use not with some, someone, somebody, something, somewhere in statements. We use any, anyone, anybody, anything, anywhere:
There aren’t any seats left. You’ll have to stand.
There aren’t some seats left.
Tell them I don’t want to see anyone.
Tell them I don’t want to see someone.
After verbs with a negative meaning like decline or refuse, we use anything rather than something:
They refused to tell us anything about it. (preferred to They refused to tell us something about it.)
Negation in non-finite clauses
Non-finite clauses are clauses without a subject, where the main verb is in the to-infinitive form, the -ing form or the -ed form. To make the negative of a non-finite clause, we can use not.
affirmative non-finite clause
negative non-finite clause
In non-finite clauses with a to-infinitive verb, we can use not after to. However, many speakers consider such ‘split infinitives’ (where something comes between to and the verb) to be bad style:
To not realise what was happening was stupid. She should have noticed something was wrong. (or Not to realise what was happening …)
I was thinking it would be nice to not have to go out and just stay in and watch TV. (or … it would be nice not to have to go out …)
Negative prefixes and suffixes
We use these prefixes most commonly in negation: de-, dis-, il-/im-/in-/ir-, mis-, non-, un-:
What he said was very impolite.
There was a misunderstanding about who should sign the contract.
The refugees also need non-food items such as tents and blankets. (items which are not food)
-less is the most common suffix for negation:
Too many people are homeless in this city.
We just have endless meetings at work – they’re so boring.
Negative adverbs: hardly, seldom, etc.
Some adverbs (e.g. hardly, little, never, only, scarcely and seldom) have a negative meaning. When we use these at the beginning of the clause, we invert the subject and verb:
Hardly had we left the hotel when it started to pour with rain.
Hardly we had left the hotel…
Little did we know that we would never meet again.
Only in spring do we see these lovely little flowers.
We also invert the subject and verb after not + a prepositional phrase or not + a clause in front position:
Not for a moment did I think I would be offered the job, so I was amazed when I got it.
Not till I got home did I realise my wallet was missing.
When we want to emphasise something negative, we often use at all. We normally use at all immediately after the word or phrase we are emphasising:
There’s nothing at all left in the fridge.
I’d rather not be here at all.
We had no rain at all this summer and now we have floods!
Not at all can come before an adjective:
She was not at all happy with the result.
We can also use whatsoever for emphasis after no + noun, nobody, no one, none and nothing. Its meaning is similar to at all, but it is stronger. We can use whatsoever to add emphasis to any negative noun phrase:
No food or drink whatsoever must be brought into the classroom.
Did any of her family go to the wedding?B:
No. None whatsoever.
We can also use not a bit, a little bit, one bit, in the least, the least bit to emphasise negatives:
Setting off the alarm was supposed to be a joke but no one found it one bit funny.
We suggested going to the cinema but they didn’t seem the least bit interested, so we just took them shopping instead.
We often add emphasis to negation to make what we say more polite. When someone makes a request using the phrase Do you mind if or Would you mind if, instead of replying with No (I don’t mind) we often say not at all or not in the least when we reply:
Do you mind if I sit here?B:
Not at all.
Would you mind if I check my emails on your computer?B:
Not in the least.
When someone says thanks or thank you, we often reply not at all:
Thanks so much for lunch, Rachel.B:
Not at all. It was my pleasure.
Negation of think, believe, suppose, hope
When we use verbs like think, believe, suppose (mental process verbs) to express uncertainty about something, we usually use not with the mental process verb rather than with the verb in the following clause:
I don’t think I’m going to pass my exams. (preferred to I think I’m not going to pass my exams.)
However, we don’t normally use a negative with hope and wish:
I hope I’m not going to fail.
I don’t hope I’m going to fail.
I wish I hadn’t sent that email to Joan.
I don’t wish I had sent…
(Negation von English Grammar Today © Cambridge University Press.)