Definition of Negation in English Grammar Plus Many Examples

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In English grammar, negation is a grammatical construction that contradicts (or negates) all or part of the meaning of a sentence. Also known as a negative construction or standard negation.

In standard English, negative clauses and sentences commonly include the negative particle not or the contracted negative n't. Other negative words include no, none, nothing, nobody, nowhere, and never

In many cases, a negative word can be formed by adding the prefix un- to the positive form of a word (as in unhappy and undecided). Other negative affixes (called negators) include a-, de-, dis-, in-, -less, and mis-.

Examples and Observations

"It was not singing and it was not crying, coming up the stairs."
(Faulkner, William. That Evening Sun Go Down, 1931.)

"I can't remember when I wasn't singing out of the house."
(Thomas, Irma Talking New Orleans Music, ed. by Burt Feintuch. University Press of Mississippi, 2015.)

"I bet you've never smelled a real school bus before."
(Ferris Bueller's Day Off, 1986.)

"I have had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn't it.
(Groucho Marx)

"​Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them."
(Snicket, Lemony: Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can't Avoid, 2007.)

"I have some rope up here, but I do not think you would accept my help, since I am only waiting around to kill you."
(Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, 1987.)

"No zinc tub, no buckets of stove-heated water, no flaky, stiff, grayish towels washed in a kitchen sink, dried in a dusty backyard, no tangled black puffs of rough wool to comb."
(Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.)

"She passed a drugstore, a bakery, a shop of rugs, a funeral parlor, but nowhere was there a sign of a hardware store."
(Singer, Isaac Bashevis. "The Key," A Friend of Kafka and Other Stories, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970.)

"I had never before heard pure applause in a ballpark. No calling, no whistling, just an ocean of handclaps, minute after minute, burst after burst, crowding and running together in continuous succession like the pushes of surf at the edge of the sand. It was a sombre and considered tumult. There was not a boo in it."
(Updike, John. Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, 1960.)

"[T]he people of the State of New York cannot allow any individuals within her borders to go unfed, unclothed, or unsheltered."
(New York Governor Franklin Roosevelt, October 1929, quoted by Herbert Mitgang in Once Upon a Time in New York, Cooper Square Press, 2003.)

What About 'Ain't'?

"Together with negative concord, ain't is perhaps the best-known shibboleth of non-standard English, and this already implies that it is highly stigmatized. Ain't is a negative form of unclear historical origin and of very wide usage—both grammatically and geographically. Probably due to a historical coincidence, ain't functions as the negative form of both present tense BE and present tense HAVE in non-standard English today."
(Anderwald, Lieselotte. Negation in Non-Standard British English: Gaps, Regularizations, and Asymmetries, Routledge, 2002.)

"Boy, have you lost your mind? Cause I'll help you find it. What you looking for, ain't nobody gonna help you out there."
(Leslie David Baker as Stanley in "Take Your Daughter to Work Day," The Office, 2006.)

The Position of 'Not'

"The preferred position for the negator not is after the first word of the auxiliary or after a copula, in a main clause. Under various circumstances, a negator that should properly be placed elsewhere is attracted into this position.

"Firstly, note that what is here called sentential negation can apply either to a main clause, as in (79), or to a complement clause, as in (80).

(79) I didn't say [that he lied] (I said nothing)
(80) I said [that he didn't lie] (I said that he told the truth)

Here the difference in meaning is significant, and the negator n't is likely to be maintained in its proper place. But consider:

(81) I don't think [that he came] (I don't know what he did)
(82) I think [that he didn't come] (I think that he stayed away)

The sentiment expressed in (81) is not likely to be often expressed, whereas that in (82) is much used. As Jespersen (1909–49, pt. V: 444) mentions, people often say I don't think that he came when they actually mean (82), that he stayed away. This can be accounted for by attraction of n't from the complement clause into the preferred position, after the first word of the auxiliary in the main clause."
(Dixon, Robert M.W. A Semantic Approach to English Grammar, Oxford University Press, 2005.)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition of Negation in English Grammar Plus Many Examples." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Definition of Negation in English Grammar Plus Many Examples. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition of Negation in English Grammar Plus Many Examples." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).