Author Topic: Forming negative sentences correctly  (Read 9858 times)

Joe Carillo

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Forming negative sentences correctly
« on: March 16, 2022, 11:23:03 PM »
Let’s revisit the very important matter of negation in English.

We all know that the adjective “no”—as do its semantic cousins “not” and “never”—undermines and negates every single thought and idea to which it latches on: “No, I don’t like you.” “No, I have never loved you.” Doubtless the most subversive single word in English, “no” when placed right before an assertion negates it with brutal efficiency: “No parking.” “No swerving.” “No overloading.” “No election cheating.”

“No” is the most subversive single word in English, negating every assertion with brutal  efficiency.
And when the negating job has to be done within a statement, “no” often takes the form of “not,” commanders the auxiliary verb “do” (in the required tense) and positions itself right between it and the action verb’s bare infinitive form: “The woman did not resist.” “The felon did not hesitate.” “The three computer engineers did not migrate.”

The pattern of negation is slightly different in the perfect tenses. The adverb “not” simply inserts itself between the auxiliary verb and the main verb, which remains in the past participle form even as the negation is consummated: “The woman has driven.” “The woman has not driven.” Always, “not” positions itself between the auxiliary verb and the main verb.

In contrast to the other “no” variants, “never” is a movable negator, certainly much more versatile than “not.” Look at how freely it positions itself: “The woman never drives.” “Never does the woman drive.” “The woman has never driven.” “Never has the woman driven.” “The woman never has driven.”

The adjective “no,” of course, can routinely negate any element by denoting its absence, contradiction, denial, or refusal: “Under no circumstances will Claudia’s offer be accepted.” “I see no sign of reconciliation.” The adverbs “not” and “never” work in much the same way: “Not a single drop of rain fell last summer.” “She will always be a bridesmaid, never a bride.”

But there’s one major caveat on “not”: it’s wrong to use it in statements that have an “all…not” form (to mean “to the degree expected”). Take this sentence: “All of the women in the district did not vote for the lone female candidate.” This sentence is semantically problematic; it could mean that “some of the women did not vote for the lone female candidate,” or that “none of the women voted for the lone female candidate.”

Better to remove the ambiguity by fine-tuning the negation to yield the desired meaning. The first option: “Not all of the women in the district voted for the lone female candidate.” The second option: “None of the women in the district voted for the lone female candidate.”

The same caveat should be observed in using “not” with the adjective “every,” as in this ambiguous sentence: “Every candidate did not meet the voters’ expectations.” Better: “None of the candidates met the voters’ expectations.” “All of the candidates failed to meet the voters’ expectations.”

Apart from using “no,” “not,” and “never,” we can also use the lexical semantics of negation and affixal negation to reverse the sense of things. Lexical negation is simply the negative structuring of sentences by using words with negative denotations, such as “neither,” “nor,” “rarely,” “hardly,” and “seldom.” Affixal negation, on the other hand, negates positive words through the use of the affixes “un-”, “im-”/“in-”/“il-”, “dis-”, “de-”, and “-less,” as in “unnecessary,” “imperfect,” “ineffective,” “illegal,” “disregard,” “decamp,” and “useless.”

When using these negative affixes, of course, we must always keep in mind to drop the “no,” “not,” or “never” in the sentence if our true intention is to negate the statement. Failure to do so will result in a grammatically incorrect double negative. “It is not illegal to steal,” for instance, will mean exactly its opposite, “It is legal to steal”—with all its dire consequences to civilized society.

This essay, 2090th of the series, appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the Campus Press section of the March 17, 2022 Internet edition of The Manila Times, ©2022 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Read this essay in my column in The Manila Times:
Forming negative sentences correctly

(Next week: Drop needless repetition to avoid boring readers)        March 24, 2022

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« Last Edit: March 17, 2022, 07:42:10 AM by Joe Carillo »