What Is Sentence Negation?

Glossary of grammatical and rhetorical terms

sentence negation comic man saying no
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  In English Grammar, sentence negation is a type of negation that affects the meaning of an entire clause. Also known as sentential negation, clausal negation, and nexal negation. (In contrast, a negation that affects the meaning of just a single word or phrase is called constituent negation—also known as special negation and subclausal negation.)

Sentence negation is commonly indicated in English by the negative particle not (or its reduced form, -nt).

In colloquial English, sentence negation may be indicated by phrases such as like hell and no way.

Examples and Observations

  • Two Types of Sentence Negation
    "It is usual to distinguish between two types of non-affixal sentence negation in English: firstly, negation with not or -n't; and secondly, negation with the negative words never, neither, nobody, no, none, nor, nothing and nowhere. Tottie (1991), for example, terms the first type 'Not-negation' and the second type 'No-negation.' Quirk et al. (1985: 782) give a list of the negative words together with their corresponding non-assertive forms, pointing out that there are two negative equivalents for a positive sentence containing an assertive form: thus We've had some lunch  has the two negative forms We haven't had any lunch and We've had no lunch (Quirk et al. 1985: 782). In the same way, these authors tell us, He sometimes visits us has the two negative forms He doesn't ever visit us and He never visits us."
    (Jenny Cheshire, "English Negation From an Interactional Perspective." Negation in the History of English, ed. by Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Gunnel Tottie, and Wim van der Wurff. Walter de Gruyter, 1998)
  • "I did not cry or yell or lie down on the pine floorboards and kick my feet."
    (Sarah Tomlinson, Good Girl: A Memoir. Gallery Books, 2015)
  • "It's not the case that I can't 'hold my own'; I can."
    (Morris Philipson, Secret Understandings. Simon & Schuster, 1983)
  • "I don't think anybody is in a position to give answers to social problems, definite, final answers.
    (Satyajit Ray in Satyajit Ray: Interviews, ed. by Bert Cardullo. University Press of Mississippi, 2007)
  • Arson isn't difficult to prove, but it can be very difficult to prove who committed it."
  • "'I see what's going to happen. You only want to go to her. You want to get your share, after all. You'll leave me without a pang.'
    "Mrs Magaw stared. 'But won't you be going too? When Mrs Taker sends for you?'"
    (Henry James, ”Fordham Castle," 1909) 
  • "My parents didn't want to move to Florida, but they turned sixty and that's the law."
    (Jerry Seinfeld)
  • "Never in my life did I remember Mama staying in bed past sunrise."
    (Jennifer Niven, Velva Jean Learns to Drive. Plume, 2009)
  • "At no time did I feel threatened or in danger of violenceAt no time did I feel inclined to regard any of my colleagues as lazy or inept—or feel they were insinuating similar judgments about me."
    (Garret Keizer, "Getting Schooled." Harper's Magazine, 2012) 
  • Exclamative Sentence Negation
    - "In adult colloquial English, exclamative sentence negation can be defined as the combination of an idiomatic word or phrase, e.g., No way, like hell, the hell, yeah right, my eye, bullcookies, nonsense, with a sentence..., e.g., Like hell Al and Hilary are married, Al and Hilary are married, my eye."
    (Kenneth F. Drozd, "Metalinguistic Sentence Negation in Child English." Perspectives on Negation and Polarity Items, ed. by Jack Hoeksema et al. John Benjamins, 2001)
    - "Shelby Boyd sidled up to Al Heakland and said under his breath, 'It's time to pay up, Al.'
    "'Like hell, I will,' Heakland whispered in a stern tone.
    "'Like hell, you won't,' said Boyd in the same tone of voice."
    (Ralph Cotton, Showdown at Hole-In-the -Wall. Penguin, 2009)
    - "My throat's all tight, and there's no way I'm going to cry in front of Ellery and Peyton."
    (Gail Nall, Breaking the Ice. Simon and Schuster, 2015)