What Is a Semi-Negative in English Grammar?

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In English grammar, a semi-negative is a word (such as seldom) or an expression (such as hardly ever) that is not strictly negative but is almost negative in meaning. Also called a near negative or broad negative.

Semi-negatives (also called near negatives) include the use of hardly, barely, rarely as adjuncts, and little and few as quantifiers.

In terms of grammar, a semi-negative often has the same effect as a negative (such as never or not) on the rest of the sentence.

Examples and Observations

  • "She hardly ever cries but lies quietly in her crib, as if in a reverie." (Lilka Trzcinska-Croydon, The Labyrinth of Dangerous Hours, 2004)
  • "She scarcely ever cries, and she seems perfectly content most of the time." (B.J. Hoff, Where Grace Abides, 2009)
  • "Nora starts crying. She almost never cries." (Carol Anshaw, Lucky in the Corner, 2002)
  • "Everybody dislikes having to work and make money, but they have to do it all the same. I'm sure I've often pitied a poor girl, tired out and in low spirits, having to try to please some man that she doesn't care two straws for — some half-drunken fool that thinks he's making himself agreeable when he's teasing and worrying and disgusting a woman so that hardly any money could pay her for putting up with it." (Mrs. Warren in Mrs. Warren's Profession by George Bernard Shaw, 1893)
  • "Why, Jane, we can hardly expect Clara to bear, with perfect firmness, the worry and torment that David has occasioned her today." (Mr. Murdstone in David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, 1850)
  • "I call her Nina, but I could hardly have known her name yet, hardly could we have had time, she and I, for any preliminary." (Vladimir Nabokov, "Spring in Fialta." The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov. Vintage, 1997)

Inversion With Semi-Negatives

"Negative and semi-negative words have the property of inducing inversion of subject and finite verb form (auxiliary) when they are in initial position, as in:
(5a) Never had she experienced such a feeling of real power.
(5b) The fog was heavy. Hardly could we distinguish the contours of the house.
It is surely an obvious thought to postulate that hardly contains a negation in its logico-semantic analysis, so that it is analysed as, for example, 'almost not.'" (Pieter A. M. Seuren, A View of Language. Oxford University Press, 2001)
"Scarcely was the locket well in my hand before I had it undone, finding a thumbnick whereby, after a little persuasion, the back, though rusted, could be opened on a hinge." (J. Meade Falkner, Moonfleet, 1898)

It is important to remember that inversion is used only when the negative or near negative refers to a part of the sentence other than the subject.

Not a single ship did they see. (A single ship is the direct object.)

Never had he gone there alone before. (Never is an adverb.)

Little do they know about their son's affairs. (Here, little functions as an adverb.)

Compare these sentences to the following sentences, in which the negative or near-negative refers to the subject of the sentence so that no inversion is used.

  • Little water can be found in the desert.
  • Not a single ship was found.
  • No human being can learn in that kind of situation."

Positive Tag Questions With Semi-Negatives

"A number of adverbials, e.g. barely, hardly, little, scarcely, and the determiners/pronouns little and few are so nearly negative that they function much like true negative words. Thus they take positive question tags:

  • It's barely/scarcely possible, is it?
  • Few people know this, do they?"

"'Don't romanticize Yasmin,' Hakim says.
"'That's hardly possible, is it, given her situation?'"


  • "TOEFL Paper-and-Pencil", 3rd ed. Kaplan, 2004
  • Sylvia Chalker and Edmund Weiner, "Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar". Oxford University Press, 1998
  • Tom Filer, "Finding Mahmoud", 2001
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Semi-Negative in English Grammar?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/semi-negative-1691942. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 28). What Is a Semi-Negative in English Grammar? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/semi-negative-1691942 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Semi-Negative in English Grammar?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/semi-negative-1691942 (accessed June 6, 2023).