Negations in English grammar

(Making negative statements in the English language)

Table of contents – negations

On this page you will find the following:

  1. Comparison to other languages
  2. Negating verbs with ‘not’
  3. Negation without ‘not’
  4. Further explanations and exercises

English negations compared to other languages

Negations in English may sometimes differ from the ones used in other languages in terms of their construction. It strongly depends on the full verb and its tense whether an additional auxiliary verb needs to be added.

Compare some typical correct and incorrect negations in English as an example:

Correct negation Incorrect negation
I don’t have a brother. I have not a brother.
He doesn’t know it. He not knows it.

How can verbs be made negative with ‘not’?

In English grammar, there are some different ways for negating. First of all, the grammatical tense of the verb needs to be considered. It depends on the tense if merely ‘not’ or an auxiliary verb is additionally required. In most cases, ‘not’ is inserted in the clause and attached to the auxiliary in its short formn’t’. If the negation needs to be emphasized or if the context is formal, ‘not’ can also appear as a separate word after the verb. In any case, the type of sentence does not matter and it can therefore be interrogative, declarative or imperative. Compare the possibilities:

Negation with auxiliary verb ‘to do’ and ‘not

The auxiliary verb ‘to do’ is only required in negations in simple tenses of the present as well as the past. It needs to be conjugated accordingly (for more details compare verb forms of ‘to do’). In positive statements, it is usually not present:

Forms of the auxiliary verb Positive example Negative example Tense
do/does + not drink don’t drink,
doesn’t drink¹
simple present
did + not eat didn’t eat simple past

¹ Attention in order to avoid this typical mistake: “We drink not tea.”

Negations with ‘not’ (without auxiliary)

Verb tenses that already have an auxiliary in their positive statements simply need to be complemented with ‘not’. Most of all, this applies to the continuous forms (ing-forms), constructions with passive voice and all perfect tenses. In a similar way, modal verbs solely need ‘not’ for their negation as they also belong to the group of auxiliary verbs. Compare:

Positive examples Negative examples – only ‘not’ is added Verb tense
is talking,
are talking
isn’t talking,
aren’t talking
present progressive
is built,
are built
isn’t built,
aren’t built
simple present passive
was drawn,
were drawn
wasn’t drawn,
weren’t drawn
past simple passive
has seen,
have seen
hasn’t seen
haven’t seen
present perfect simple
has been playing,
have been playing
hasn’t been playing,
haven’t been playing
present perfect progressive
can read cannot read (Attention!²),
can’t read
simple present (with modal verb)
will go won’t go future simple (also with modal verb)

² Attention: The negative form of ‘can’ is ‘cannot’, written as one word. For details, compare the spelling of ‘can’t, cannot’ or ‘can not’.

Information: The verb ‘to be’ is an exception here. Even as a full verb, it is negated with ‘notonly:

  • Positive “Sam is at home.”
  • Negative “Sam is not at home.”
  • Not: “Sam doesn’t be at home.”
    • This typical mistake occurs frequently, but the negation of ‘to be’ is carried out without additional auxiliary ‘to do’.

How can be negated without using ‘not’?

Besides negations with verbs (as explained above), clauses can also be negated, which means made negative by using other words. Such words already bear a negative meaning and hence do not require ‘not’ in the sentence.

Some examples of words that carry negative meaning:

  • The adverb of frequency ‘never’:
    • “They never go to bed after 11 o’clock.”
    • corresponds roughly to: “They don’t go to bed after 11 o’clock.”
  • neither:
    • Neither of us passed the exam.”
    • corresponds to: “We both didn’t pass the exam.”
  • Prefixes that express the negative opposite:
    • “What you’re doing is illegal.”
    • corresponds to: “What you’re doing is not legal.”
  • Indefinite pronouns, such as ‘nobody’ or ‘none’:
    • Nobody could help me yesterday.”
    • corresponds roughly to: Not anybody could help me yesterday.”

Further explanations referring to ‘Negations in English’

The following explanations relate to the topic ‘Making negative statements in the English language’ and may also be interesting:

  • Conjugation of English verbs
  • Use of verbs in English
  • Exercise 1: negations