Sunday, November 16, 2014

Mastering the fine art of negation in English

We know that to affirm something to be true is much easier and more pleasant to do than to declare it to be untrue. This is because doing the latter often involves negating what somebody else holds to be true—a situation that could cause bad feelings, wounded pride, acrimonious exchange, or even vicious and protracted debate. It is therefore important for us to develop negation to a fine art, the better to diffuse the pain and unpleasantness to the one being refused, rebutted, contradicted, denied, lied upon, or denigrated.

The staple negation adverbs in English are, of course, “no,” “not,” “never,” and “without.” In addition to them, however, the language uses a remarkably wide range of devices for lexical negation (words with negative connotations) and affixal negation (positive words negated by affixes). I surveyed these types of negation in an essay that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in the mid-2000s, and I am now reposting it here for those who may need a refresher on how to say no without causing offense. (November 16, 2014)

Forming negative sentences correctly

Without any doubt, the adverb “no”—abetted by its semantic cousins “not,” “never,” “without,” and several others with a negative bent—is the most subversive word in the English language. Look how “no” 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.” “No, go away; my life will be much better without you.” And if you look back at the adverbial phrase “without any doubt” that begins the first sentence above, you would see how the word “without” totally reverses the sense of “doubt” to “certainty.” Overwhelmingly powerful, “no” and its cohorts can quickly and very efficiently demolish every declarative or affirmative statement that we can think up in the English language.

We can see that to negate entire statements, “no” takes a commanding position at the very beginning of sentences. It does so with brutal efficiency: “No swerving.” “No entry.” “No, sir, minors aren’t allowed here.” On the other hand, when “no” has to do the negating within a sentence, it often assigns “not” to take its place, commanders an auxiliary verb, and positions “not” right after it: “The woman drove.” “The woman did not drive.” “The woman will not drive.” Of course, we already know that when “not” does this, the main verb relinquishes the tense to the auxiliary verb. In the example given above, in particular, the auxiliary verb “do” takes either the past or future tense, and the main verb takes the verb stem “drive.”

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, with the main verb remaining in the past participle form even as the negation is consummated: “The woman has driven.” “The woman has not driven.” The important thing to remember is that “not” always positions itself between the helping verb and the main verb; for it to do otherwise would be grammatically and awfully fatal: “The woman not has driven.” “The visitors not have eaten.”

In contrast, “never” is a movable negator, certainly much more versatile than “not.” Watch: “The woman never drives.” “Never does the woman drive.” “The woman has never driven.” “Never has the woman driven.” “The woman never has driven.” “Never” is negation in its emphatic form—demolishing an idea to the extreme.

The adverb “no,” of course, can routinely negate any element by denoting absence, contradiction, denial, or refusal: “Under no circumstances will Claudia’s offer be accepted.” “I see no sign of reconciliation.” The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are no more.” “Have you no conscience?” 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 sentences 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 also be observed when 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” or “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 as well as 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,however, we must always remember 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.

From the book Give Your English the Winning Edge by Jose A. Carillo © 2009 by the author, © 2010 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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