Free Grammar Lesson for ESL Students – Negation in English

– Josh Pirie (The Language Doctor)

Negation is a strange beast in English.  Have you ever met people who say “no” and those who say “not” in what seems to be the same sentences?  Here are two examples:

  • Your drawing is no better than mine.
  • Your drawing is not better than mine.

Generally, we say that “no” is a quantifier, a “grammar adjective” we use when there isn’t any of a particular thing.  We use it when we want to show absence: “There are no cookies left in this jar!”  We also say, generally, that “not” is an adverb, and goes nicely with verbs when we want to negate a whole sentence: “This is not what I asked you to do.”  But these do not explain the use of the two examples above.  What’s going on here?

“No” in English, when used with a comparative, also means “in no way.”  It’s functioning as an adverbial.  That’s what makes it so insulting in the following exchange.

Patient:            You are actually asking me to swim in the Ocean in winter to help me get over my flu?

Doctor:            Yes.  I am a doctor.  Do as I say.

Patient:            You, sir, are no doctor.  [“You, sir, are in no way a doctor.”]

Think for a minute, then, on the meaning of the two examples above.  Can you now see the difference?

(The expression “no better than mine” is my attempt to indicate that if we compared the two drawings, they’d both be judged similarly, or mine would be better than yours.  I would say this as an answer to my friend’s statement: “Isn’t my drawing the best?”  My friend isn’t even acknowledging my drawing!  How arrogant of him!  How rude!  By contrast, the expression “not better than mine” is only a statement that says that I disagree with the idea that my friend’s is better than mine – he might say, “Josh, my drawing is better than yours.”  I disagree with his comparison.  This is communicated without a tone that suggests I want my friend to be less arrogant; at least he’s acknowledging my drawing!)

You’ll want to be careful how you use negatives, then, when you’re also using comparative structures.

Think of some situations where you might hear the following, then.  I’ll provide some answers at the end of this blog and you can compare, OK?

  • Your kittens are no cuter than mine.
  • Fruit here is no cheaper than it is in my country.
  • There’s no better cure for what’s bothering you than an apple.

There’s another area of negation that often confuses students.  In advanced English, students find that inversion patterns occur with negatives, as in the following examples:

  •  Never have I been so insulted!
  • Not once has he ever spoken to me about this!
  • Under no circumstances should we touch Bob’s sandwich.

I’m often asked why No one or Nothing don’t trigger a similar inversion pattern of [negative adverb + auxiliary + subject].  The answer is simple.  In the three examples above, the negative is clausal, meaning that it’s a part of the clause.  In no one or nothing, the negative is stuck inside the subject.  The inversion rule only applies to negative adverbials that come at the beginning of the clause, not negative subjects!

We do this to emphasize the negative and make it sound a little more shocking.

A:        I heard you climbed down the side of the building from the 40th floor.  Wow!

B:        Yes, and never will I do such a stupid thing ever again!

A:        I heard you stepped on a spider in front of your girlfriend.

B:        Yes, and I will never do such a thing ever again.

Stepping on a spider while one’s girlfriend watches is not really an exciting or horrible thing, don’t you agree?  It’s no worse than many other things guys do that girls don’t like!  (Do you like my use of the [“no” + adjective] comparative?)

Happy studying!

Josh Pirie


Answers to the 3 situations 

  • Your kittens are no cuter than mine.  You might say this if you friend tells you that her kittens are cute, probably the cutest in the world, but doesn’t even mention yours.  You feel insulted, so you use “no cuter than”.  This way you can say if we compared kittens, we’d all see that yours are in no way cuter than mine.  (If, though, your friend had said, “My kittens are cuter than yours,” you would probably reply with this: I disagreeYour kittens are not cuter than mine.)
  • Fruit here is no cheaper than it is in my country.  This sounds like a reply to someone who says, “The fruit here is the cheapest in the world!”  It sounds arrogant, and you’d like to simply remind this person that cheap fruit exists in lots of places, your country included.
  • There’s no better cure for what’s bothering you than an apple.  In this example, the no is part of a noun phrase (not an adjective phrase, like the two above) and is pretty similar to There’s not a better cure for what’s bothering you than an apple.  The construction [not a + noun] is often a less emphatic version of [no + noun].





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