The ultimate guide to negation in English
by Adriana Stein
September 16, 2020

Learning how to use negation sentences in English is an important part of becoming a fluent English speaker. To give you a better understanding of how they work, we’ve outlined how you can negate sentences with modal verbs and typical verb structures.

What are negation sentences?

We use negation sentences in English when we want to state something with “not”, as in not true or negative. Negation sentences are structured differently depending on the tense and type of phrase or verb you’re using. However, one important rule is that no matter the tense, we never use two negative words in a row.

The following sections outline the different ways you should structure negation sentences.

Negation with modal verbs

Modal verbs are a set of verbs in English that often come with their own particular grammar rules. They are used to describe either obligation, probability, or possibility:

Used for Modal verb
Obligation

must

*to have to

will

Probability

should

could

would

Possibility

might 

may

can

*to be able to

 

Important note: there are a few more modal verb structures with exceptions that are noted with a * that will be discussed in their respective sections.

When we want to negate a sentence with a modal verb, we use the following structure:

modal verb + not + main verb (infinitive form)

For example:

I can not speak French.

You should not smoke here.

He may not need to go home now.

They must not learn English.

She will not cook dinner tonight.

We also use contractions for some negation verbs, meaning a shorter form of the verb. With the above examples, the contraction versions are:

I can’t speak French. 

You shouldn’t smoke here.

They mustn’t learn English.

She won’t cook dinner tonight. (note here that the contraction form of “will not” does not follow regular modal verb contraction rules)

We don’t use contractions with the modal verbs “may” and “might”.

Negation with “to be”

The verb “to be” is a highly irregular verb in English, so it again follows different negation rules than most modal verbs, and also changes between present simple and present continuous.

Present simple “to be” negation

When we create a negation sentence with “to be” in present simple, we use the following structure:

am/is/are + not

For example: 

I am not home.

We are not happy.

She is not upset. 

We can also use contractions for “to be” negations as well:

I’m not home. (Note here that the contraction takes place with “I am” and leaves “not” in place)

We aren’t happy.

She isn’t upset.

*The modal verb exception with “to be able to” follows the rules of “to be” instead of the typical modal verb negation rule, because “to be” is part of the phrase:

I am not able to make it to dinner tonight.

They are not able to sit outside.

He is not able to drive a car.

Present continuous “to be” negation

The verb “to be” also has a similar structure when we negate present continuous:

am/is/are + not + gerund (-ing verb)

For example: 

We are not going home now.

I am not talking to you.

She is not walking to the store.

There is no change with contractions here and they follow the same pattern as “to be” in present simple:

We aren’t going home now.

I’m not talking to you.

She isn’t walking to the store.

Note that also for both past simple and past continuous, the same negation structures are used. You would only need to use the past tense form of “to be” which is “was/were”.

Negation with “do”

We can negate any sentence in English in the simple present or simple past (except modal verbs and “to be”) with the structure:

do/does (auxiliary verb) + not + main verb (infinitive form)

A few examples are: 

She does not speak Spanish.

I do not like chocolate.

They do not take the train.

We do not eat lunch so late.

When we want to use contractions, we use the following structure:

She doesn’t speak Spanish.

I don’t like chocolate.

They don’t take the train.

We don’t eat lunch so late.

*The modal verb “to have to” falls into this category, because it begins with the word “to”. So it uses the same structure as above (also with contractions):

I do not have to work tomorrow.

She does not have to make dinner.

They do not have to go home.

We do not have to go shopping.

You can also use the same structure here for verbs in past tenses. You would only need to use the past tense of “do/does” which is “did”.

Negation with “have” (perfect tenses)

There is another particular method for negating verbs in perfect tenses. Here is an overview on how it works:

Negation with present perfect simple

A negative sentence in present perfect simple uses the following structure:

have/has + not + past participle (3rd verb form)

For example: 

I have not been to Paris.

We have not eaten dinner.

She has not driven a car.

They have not made a cake.

To make contractions, we can change the sentences as follows:

I haven’t been to Paris.

We haven’t eaten dinner.

She hasn’t driven a car.

They haven’t made a cake.

In order to create negation sentences with past present simple, we swap out “have/has” with its past tense form “had”.

Negation with present perfect continuous

In order to create a negation sentence with present perfect continuous, the following structure applies:

have/has + not + been + gerund (-ing verb)

For example:

I have not been walking home.

She has not been making dinner.

You have not been speaking loud enough.

We have not been eating out so often.

The same contraction rules from above apply here as well:

I haven’t been walking home.

She hasn’t been making dinner.

You haven’t been speaking loud enough.

We haven’t been eating out so often.

If we want to use past perfect continuous, we again swap out “have/has” for the past tense form “had”.

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