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Some of the most common words in English are negatives. These words express the opposite of a positive statement. There are a lot of them. However, this is English after all, so not all negatives fit into the same grammatical category. Let’s take a little time to clarify which part of speech these negatives belong to, and how to use them.
First of all, negation is more common in conversation than in formal writing. We often use negation to avoid directness. You are more likely to approach a stranger by saying, “I’m not sure if I am in the right place.” This is less forceful than, “Am I in the right place?”
Words like not, no, never, nothing are all adverbs expressing negation. Notice that they don’t look like your typical adverbs, because they lack that tell-tale suffix –ly. They are modifiers, in that their function is to change the meaning of the sentence. Removing them, however, usually doesn’t change the grammatical structure of the sentence, just the meaning. “Pedro is not at home.” “Pedro is at home.”
Then there are verb conjunctions which also express negation, such as isn’t, aren’t, can’t, and won’t. These are used in informal, conversational sentences, and are common to everyday English usage. There is nothing wrong in saying, “Pedro is not at home”, but conversationally you would more likely say, “Pedro isn’t home.” To simplify the sentence, and to avoid formality, you should use the informal verb conjunction and omit the preposition at.
We often form negative questions in English using negative conjunctions at the beginning of the question. “Didn’t Pedro say that he was going home this afternoon?” “Isn’t that Pedro’s car in his driveway?”
You may also form a negative imperative with the use of the command conjunction don’t. “Don’t look for Pedro.”
Let’s try this. Suppose Pedro is home but sleeping. He’s there, you just can’t talk to him. In an attempt to seem clever, you might say, “Well, Pedro isn’t not at home!” Unfortunately, instead of being witty, you would end up sounding just silly. Using one negative to cancel out the other is called a double negative, or multiple negations. It is possible to find examples of more than two negatives in a clause, mostly in songs and poetry. They are confusing and structurally awkward. Don’t use them if you hope to be understood.
You’re going to encounter these common methods of using negatives every day in English. Isn’t it better knowing a little more about them?
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