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Concourse 2

Negation and questioning in English: the essentials


English is no different from many languages in having a number of ways to make negatives and ask questions.  How English does it is, however, not simple.

think Here are some examples.  In each column, there is one rogue which is not a real question or a real negative.  Can you spot it?
Click here when you have.
Negatives Questions
  1. John didn't eat any cake.
  2. I reject the idea that John at any cake.
  3. John denied eating any chocolate.
  4. John hardly ate any cake.
  5. John wouldn't mind some chocolate.
  1. What time is it?
  2. Would you like some cake?
  3. Do you want any cake?
  4. Is there a bus due?
  5. Coming?

Here are some more examples:

The moral is: Form and function do not have a one-to-one relationship (in any language).


Making questions and negatives in English

The grammar

The way we make questions and negatives depends on the type of verb we are using.  Essentially there are three that concern us here.

canary wharf

1. Lexical or main verbs

Lexical or main verbs are in the majority.  They are verbs which describe states or actions and carry meaning even when they are the only verb in the sentence or even the only word.  For example
    He smokes

carry meanings but
    He can
    He was
do not carry any meaning and must be combined with other words to make any sense.  The verbs can and be are auxiliary verbs and we will come to their properties.  The verbs smoke, stop and go are lexical or main verbs and the focus here.

English is unusual in the way it makes questions and negatives with lexical or main verbs because we use an operator, the verb do.  The operator carries only the grammatical information and no meaning in itself.  This is how it works:

Person and tense Positive sentence Negative sentence Question
Present simple tense
He speaks Italian He does not speak Italian Does he speak Italian?
Doesn't he speak Italian?
She likes oysters She doesn't like oysters Does she like oysters?
Doesn't she like oysters?
It makes a noise It doesn't make a noise Does it make a noise?
Doesn't it make a noise?
Present simple tense
(All other persons)
I speak Italian I don't speak Italian Do you speak Italian?
Don't you speak Italian?
They enjoy gardening They don't enjoy gardening Do they enjoy gardening?
Don't they enjoy gardening?
You live in the USA You don't live in the USA Do you live in the USA?
Don't you live in the USA?
Past simple tense
(All persons)
She went shopping She didn't go shopping Did she go shopping?
Didn't she go shopping?
They gave it up They didn't give it up Did they give it up?
Didn't they give it up?
You lived in London You didn't live in London Did you live in London?
Didn't you live in London?

A few notes:

  1. The only two tenses in the table are present simple and past simple.  Other tense forms work differently, as we shall see, because we use different auxiliary verbs to form them.
  2. Here we have given the usual spoken forms of the operator with the contracted form of not (n't).  This pattern will be followed in the whole of this guide.
  3. The functions of the negative questions are described below.
  4. The forms used with wh-words (how, what, when, where, why, who, whom, which, whose) have a separate guide to themselves, linked in the list of related guides at the end, and are not discussed here.

2. Auxiliary verbs

Auxiliary verbs come in two types for our purposes here.


  1. Central modal auxiliary verbs and the auxiliaries have and be make their negatives by the insertion of not or n't after the verb.
  2. Central modal auxiliary verbs and the auxiliaries have and be make their questions by reversing the verb and the subject order.
  3. Semi-modal auxiliary verbs exhibit both kinds of question and negative structures.

be and have

3. be and have as main verbs

Both these verbs can also appear as main rather than auxiliary verbs.  When they do so, they keep some of their auxiliary characteristics but they also take on new ones.
For example:

Function Positive form Negative form Question forms
Main verb meaning 'exist'
He is in London He isn't in London Is he in London?
He's not in London Isn't he in London?
I am in London I'm not in London Am I in London?
Aren't I in London?
Am I not in London?
They are very irritating They aren't very irritating Are they very irritating?
They're not very irritating Aren't they very irritating?
Main verb meaning 'possess'
It has two parts It hasn't (got) two parts Has it (got) two parts
It's not got two parts Hasn't it (got) two parts?
It doesn't have two parts Does it have two parts?
Doesn't it have two parts?
He has a house in Paris He hasn't (got) a house in Paris Has he (got) a house in Paris?
He's not got a house in Paris Hasn't he (got) a house in Paris?
He doesn't have a house in Paris Does he have a house in Paris?
Doesn't he have a house in Paris?


  1. When have acts as a main verb, there are three possible negative and question forms:
    1. Inserting not or n't for a negative and reversing the order for a question
    2. Inserting not or n't for a negative and reversing the order for a question and also adding the meaningless got to the clause.  This is more common in British English.
    3. Following the patterns of a main verb and using the do / does / did operator.  This is more common in American English but becoming so in British English, too.
      The added complication is that when the verb means be obliged to, it usually takes the negation and question as a main verb but, of course, the meaning alters.
          I have to go = I must go
          Do I have to go? = Must I go?

          I don't have to go = I needn't go
  2. The verb be retains its structures whether it is a main or auxiliary verb but it is very irregular:
    1. It does not make the first-person question with the am form.  In colloquial English, it uses are instead, as in, e.g.:
          Aren't I clever?
      but that must be in the contracted form and is never
          *Are not I?
    2. In formal English the question may be Am I not ...? but that cannot be contracted to *amn't.
    3. It never uses the do / does / did operator.
  3. With both be and have, a colloquial negative alternative with the contraction of the verb rather than not is heard.  For example:
    instead of
        He isn't in London
    we can say
        He's not in London
    and instead of
        They haven't got the right answer
    we can say
        They've not got the right answer
  4. With this form of have, the use of got is obligatory.
    It is not possible to say
        *They've not the right answer
    But we can say:
        They don't have the right answer
  5. There is no alternative form for the first-person singular.  We can only have
        I'm not coming
        I am not coming
        *I amn't coming
    is not available

This is quite a complicated set of patterns for learners to acquire and it causes a good deal of difficulty and confusion, not only at lower levels.

three giraffes

Adverbs, pronouns and determiners

These three word classes have two forms of negation and a question form.  They work like this but the list is not complete:

  Positive form Negative form 1 Negative form 2 Question forms
Adverbs It is †somewhat warmer It isn't any warmer It is no warmer Is it any warmer?
Isn't it any warmer?
He is still waiting He isn't waiting any more / longer He is waiting no more / longer Is he still waiting?
Isn't he still waiting?
They are there already They aren't there yet NO FORM Are they there yet?
Aren't they there yet?
She *sometimes arrives on time She doesn't ever arrive on time She never arrives on time Does she ever arrive on time?
Doesn't she ever arrive on time?
It is somewhere in the garage It isn't anywhere in the garage It's nowhere in the garage Is it anywhere in the garage?
Isn't it anywhere in the garage?
Pronouns I'll complain to someone / somebody I won't complain to anyone / anybody I'll complain to no-one / nobody Will you complain to anyone?
Won't you complain to anyone?
I bought some I didn't buy any I bought none Did you buy any?
Didn't you buy any?
Determiner She wants some tea She doesn't want any tea She wants no tea Does she want any tea?
Doesn't she want any tea?
† and other downtoners such as slightly, marginally, a bit, a tad etc.
* and other frequency adverbs such as usually, always, frequently, often etc.
The forms used for negative and interrogative sentences are called non-assertive forms and those used for positive sentences are called assertive forms.  There is a guide to assertive and non-assertive forms in the in-service section of the site, linked below.


These five adverbs are sometimes known as negators because they operate in the same way as the negator never.
For example:
Used with Negative (non-assertive) forms 1 (see table above)
    I seldom went anywhere
    I barely saw anything
    I hardly had any time to think
    She scarcely ever comes late
    They rarely come to anyone's party

negative question

Negative questions

Negative question forms have a range of functions, many signalled by intonation.

  1. To express the negative orientation of the speaker:
        Does nobody love me? [I assume nobody loves me]
        Can't you get here any earlier? [I assume you can't but I'm hoping you can]
        Won't you reconsider? [I assume you won't]
  2. To express surprise:
        Isn't it too cold to go swimming? [I assumed it was]
        Aren't you too old for this? [I assumed you were]
        Hasn't he left yet? [I assumed he had]
  3. To express disappointment:
        Shouldn't you be in bed? [I am disappointed that you are not]
        Can't you help a bit? [I am disappointed that you are not helping]


Transferred negation

English has a peculiarity with negation which causes a good deal of difficulty.  Most languages will put the negation where it belongs, i.e., with the verb that is being negated.
For example:
    I think that he hasn't done it yet
    I expect he won't come
    I imagine she has no money

In all these cases, we have a verb signalling belief followed by a clause which is negated in some way.
English, bizarrely, often chooses to negate the first clause and leave the second clause positive.  This is why it is called transferred negation.  It only occurs with verbs signalling belief or assumption including, but not limited to
    believe, suppose, guess, fancy, imagine, reckon, expect
For the three sentences above, for example, English speakers would naturally select:
    I don't think he's done it yet
    I don't expect he will come
    I don't imagine she has any money

This is deeply illogical and confusing because the negation really belongs with the second, not the first, clause.  The proof of this is to consider the natural question tag because the positive question tag reveals the negative meaning of the clause:
    I don't suppose he is coming now, is he?
    I don't reckon we'll be there before 8, will we?
For more on question tags, see the guide, linked below.


Problems for learners

The way that English operates in this area is clearly quite complicated and learners at all levels make errors.  Here are some examples.  Think about what the source of the error could be and then click on the eye open to reveal some comments.

I don't can come
eye open
The problem exemplified here is that the learner has acquired the difficult and unusual way English makes questions with main verbs, using do / does / did.
Unfortunately, learners often carry this over to modal auxiliary verbs and other verbs which do not use the form.
Go you out?
eye open
Many language make all or most question forms by simply reversing the subject and the object.  English does this for modal auxiliary verbs and auxiliaries as we have seen but it uses the odd and non-intuitive do / does / did form for main verbs.
You go out?
eye open
Many languages do not have a separate structure for question forms at all and rely on intonation in spoken language and punctuation in written language.
English can do this as we saw above with the example,
Coming?, but it is quite rare and very informal.
I don't have some money
eye open
The way that English uses determiners and pronouns like some and any is unique to the language and the system, as we saw above, is complicated.
All languages differ in this respect.
I think he hasn't done it already
eye open
There are two issues here:
The first is that a more natural statement in English would be to transfer the negation to the first clause and say
I don't think ... .  Very few languages work like English in this respect.
The second problem is with the adverb
In questions and negatives in English, the adverb usually changes to
The correct statement should be:
I don't think he has done it yet.
Does he have got the book?
eye open
The insertion of the wholly meaningless verb got in British English in particular causes problems because it cannot be used with the do operator.
There is a good argument for confining the teaching of the question and negative forms of
have as a main verb to the use of the do operator.
He doesn't have been
eye open
A learner may well be forgiven for assuming that the verb have always works the same way but its existence as both a main verb and an auxiliary verb is confusing.
It hasn't was fixed yet
eye open
Not knowing how to build tense and aspect forms in English when both the auxiliary be and have are used is quite common.  It requires careful teaching and practice.
I seldom don't have some
eye open
There are two issues here, too:
The first is that
seldom is a negator in English and following it with a negative with don't makes a double negative in English.  While that is permissible in many languages, English does not usually allow it.
The second problem is with the pronoun
In questions and negatives in English, the pronoun usually changes to
The correct statement should be:
I seldom have any.
He denies doing something
They have failed to be here already
eye open
The issue here is to with the meaning of the verb.  A number of verbs in English are negative in their sense so the form of the adverb or the pronoun is also negative.
These include verbs such as
deny, negate, repudiate, reject, scrap, fail, discard, avoid, escape, duck, regret, dislike, abhor etc. which all carry a negative meaning.
For example:
He denied any wrongdoing [not *He denied some wrongdoing]
The have failed to be here yet [not *They have failed to be here already]
She avoided speaking to anyone [not *She avoided speaking to someone].



All these problems need careful handling.  The central issues are:

  1. Do not underestimate how complex this area is.
  2. Do not assume that other languages have similar forms and structures.  They do not.
  3. Do not overload learners.  Teach the structures in isolation before trying to combine them.
    There is little point, for example, in trying to teach the changes to pronouns, adverbs and determiners all at once and none at all until the basic negative and question structures have been acquired.

Related guides
negation this is a more technical guide covering some peculiarities of the negative and learner difficulties with it
question tags for a guide to other ways of making questions
interrogatives this is a more technical guide covering the form of interrogatives in English
assertive and non-assertive forms this is a more technical guide in the in-service section to pronouns, determiners and adverbs
primary auxiliary verbs a guide to a troublesome area
modality essentials the essential guide to modal auxiliary verbs
wh-questions find out here about how to form questions with what, who, how, why etc.