Sentence Negation

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

People sitting in front of empty plates
One negative form of "We've had some lunch" is "We haven't had any lunch".

Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

 In English Grammar, sentence negation is a type of negation that affects the meaning of an entire clause. This form is 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, special negation, and subclausal negation.

Sentence negation is most commonly accomplished in English using the negative particle not (or its reduced form -nt). In colloquial English, sentence negation may be achieved using phrases such as like hell or no way.

Types of Sentence Negation

Constituent negation is fairly straightforward and one way it can be easily carried out is by using affixes such as the prefix un-; sentential negation is a bit more complicated. Jenny Cheshire, British sociolinguist, identified two distinct forms of sentence negation that are void of affixes. "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," (Cheshire 1998).

Exclamative Sentence Negation

Outside of standard no and not negation, there is another much more specific variety, talked about by linguist Kenneth Drozd in the book Perspectives on Negation and Polarity Items. "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," (Drozd 2001).

See more examples of this type of sentence negation below.

  • "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," (Cotton 2009).
  • "My throat's all tight, and there's no way I'm going to cry in front of Ellery and Peyton," (Nall 2015).

Examples of Sentence Negation

As you might expect, negative sentences are quite common. Here are several examples to help you understand its function and how it appears. Pay attention to how sentence negation is achieved in each.

  • Arson isn't difficult to prove, but it can be very difficult to prove who committed it.
  • "I did not cry or yell or lie down on the pine floorboards and kick my feet," (Tomlinson 2015).
  • "It's not the case that I can't 'hold my own; I can," (Philipson 1983).
  • "I don't think anybody is in a position to give answers to social problems, definite, final answers," (Ray 1968).
  • "'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?'" (James 1904).
  • "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," (Niven 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," (Keizer 2012).

Sources

  • Cheshire, Jenny. “English Negation From an Interactional Perspective.” Negation in the History of English, Walter De Gruyter, 1998.
  • Cotton, Ralph. Showdown at Hole-In-the -Wall. Penguin Books, 2009.
  • Drozd, Kenneth. “Metalinguistic Sentence Negation in Child English.” Perspectives on Negation and Polarity Items, John Benjamins, 2001.
  • James, Henry. “Fordham Castle.” Harper's Magazine, 1904.
  • Keizer, Garret. "Getting Schooled." Harper's Magazine, 2012.
  • Nall, Gail. Breaking the Ice. Simon and Schuster, 2015.
  • Niven, Jennifer. Velva Jean Learns to Drive. Plume Books, 2009.
  • Philipson, Morris. Secret Understandings. Simon & Schuster, 1983.
  • Ray, Satyajit. "Satyajit Ray: Interviews". Interview by James Blue. Film Comment 1968.
  • Tomlinson, Sarah. Good Girl: A Memoir. Gallery Books, 2015.