Negatives in English Grammar

In English there are a number of different ways to be Negative and these depend on the original positive sentence.

Generally speaking we make negatives in two ways. Either by adding not to an auxiliary verb or by using do/does/did + not:

I am going to answer that question. > I am not going to answer that question.

He answered the phone in time. > He did not answer the phone in time.

After that there are negative words we can use and later on in the article, the infamous double-negatives!

If the Main Verb is be
When the main verb in the sentence is the auxiliary to be we make the negative by simply adding to it the negative particle not:

{be} + not

She is not English
They were not here.

If the Main Verb is not be
With other verbs, we make negatives simply by using do not or does not and the bare infinitive:

do/does/did + not + {bare infinitive}

I do not live in London.
She does not live in London.
They did not telephone.

which form of do?
When you go over this in your TEFL class, explain that we need to choose the right form of do and this depends on the original verb.

positive – negative
I live here.  – I do not live here.
She lives here.  – She does not live here.
He lived here.  – He did not live here.

Modals & Auxiliaries
Suppose there’s a modal or auxiliary in the positive sentence.

I can dance.
They will arrive soon.
The Jets have won.

We simply add not after the modal or auxiliary:

{auxiliary/modal} + not

I can not dance.
They will not arrive soon.
The Jets have not won.

Informal English
In informal situations, we usually use n’t instead of not:

full – contraction
is not – isn’t
are not – aren’t
would not – wouldn’t
have not – haven’t
had – not hadn’t

There are exceptions:

I am not – I’m not
will not – won’t
shall not – shan’t

The negative of can is can not. This is sometimes made into one word, cannot:

can not = cannot = can’t

Negative Word Changes
Sometimes we change other words from positive to negative:

positive – negative
I have a lot of money. – I don’t have much money.
I have already gone. – I haven’t gone yet.
I want some too. – I don’t want any either.
I have some money. – I have no money.


There are some people.
There are no people.


There isn’t any left.
There is none left.


Either Pete or Jeff will help.
Neither Pete nor Jeff will help.

no one, nothing, nobody, nowhere

There is someone in the room.
There is no one in the room.

Using no is stronger than saying not any. Can you tell the difference here?

I have no desire to go out with him.
I don’t have any desire to go out with him.

Double Negatives
Double negatives are not used in standard English.

* I cannot see nothing.
I cannot see anything.

* an asterisk at the beginning shows something is ungrammatical

It is also incorrect in standard English to use negative words alongside adverbs such as barely, hardly and scarcely. That is because these adverbs have a minimizing effect on the verb. They mean something like almost not at all. They resemble negative adverbs such as not and never in that they are used with any, anybody, and similar words rather than none, nobody, and other negatives.

* I couldn’t hardly see it.
I could hardly see it.

* I barely have no money left.
I barely have any money left.

* I don’t have no money left.
I don’t have any money left.

See the links below for a detailed discussion on double-negatives.

Although necessary, negative phrasing can sometimes come across as harsh. In some cases you may want to consider turning your negative phrase into a positive one.

What we’re doing here is simply putting a spin on the words to make them sound better; the meaning doesn’t really change at all.

Negative – Positive
I’m not available until 30th July. – You can reach me again from 30th July.
I don’t think this is a good offer for us. – Can you offer us an alternative to this?
You don’t understand. – Let me explain that to you again.

Useful Links
Double Negatives‏‎ in English – what’s wrong with them?

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Posted in Language Functions.

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