Are you learning English? Do you speak the language fluently but still have problems with negatives? Perhaps your mother tongue combines negative words for emphasis. You are used to seeing and using these double negatives. But they don’t exist in current standard English. In the sentence I just wrote, the word “not” – as in “do not exist” – is the only negative you need. If you use an additional negative, the reader or listener will be confused and think that you mean they DO exist.
Do you have a brother? No, [I don’t].
Have you got a brother? No, [I haven’t].
Do you have a table for two? No, I’m sorry, we don’t.
I don’t know how to say “table” in Italian.
I don’t know Paul.
I haven’t got time to watch television. I’m too busy studying.
I have never spoken English at work.
Unfortunately, I didn’t see the letter before the meeting.
I didn’t say anything because I wasn’t sure I was right.
In the last example, pay attention to the first half of the sentence: “I didn’t say anything“. This introduces another point of confusion: some, any or no? If you remember the rule “Never use a double negative”, you’ll be OK.
Do I mean “No”?
Look at the following examples and notice how we use no, any and some in English.
Nothing is a negative word so you can’t combine it with not.
He said nothing because he was shocked.
I did not [didn’t] say anything – use any in negative sentences if you are including another negative word in the clause, such as not or never.
I attend every meeting but I never say anything.
Did you say anything? – use any in questions.
He said something to me. [statement] But I didn’t understand. [negative] So I said nothing OR So I didn’t say anything. [negative]
Now try changing a word or two in each of the following examples, so that they tell us something true about you. Then read them aloud for practice. For example, “Have you got any friends in New York?”
“Have you got any friends in London?” “No, I haven’t. But I have a friend in Birmingham and some friends in Scotland.”
“Do you have any friends in London?” “No, I don’t know anybody in the UK.”
“Is anybody listening?” “No, there’s nobody in the restaurant. We are the only customers.”
“Is anybody watching?” “Yes, there’s somebody behind you. He looks very interested in what you’re doing. Perhaps he’s a police officer.”
“Be quiet! Somebody might hear us.” “Nobody can hear us. The restaurant is empty.” “Careful! This is a public place. Anybody could hear us.”
“Is there any food in the fridge?” “No, there’s nothing to eat. There’s no food in the kitchen.”
“Is there any food left?” “Yes, I can see some bread and some carrots.”
“Do you have any advice for me? I’m flying to London tomorrow.”
“I’d like to give you some advice. I remember my first trip abroad.”
“I’m not going to give you any advice. You don’t need it. You’re very sensible.”
“Somebody’s knocking at the door. Open it!”
“I opened the door and there was nobody there.”
“Wasn’t there anybody in the street?”
“I can hear something. Can you hear anything?”
“I can’t hear anything.”
“Go upstairs. Perhaps there’s somebody in the attic.”
“There’s nobody there.”
“Would anyone like a cup of tea? Someone needs to boil the kettle but no one wants to miss the exciting part of the film.”
“Did you go anywhere interesting this summer?”
“We went to a beach in Italy, somewhere near Naples.”
“I didn’t go anywhere. I stayed home. There’s nowhere interesting to go in my village. It’s very quiet.”
“We should have a coffee sometime.” “”Yes, we’ve never seen each other outside work.
“Have you ever had a drink with the boss? He’s very serious.” “No. I never mix business and social life.”
“Have you ever been to Spain?” “Yes, but I’ve never been to Madrid.”
“He’s eaten all the cake! There’s nothing left!”
I rang that number but nobody answered.
Nothing is impossible
We can, however, negate an adjective [“impossible“] and combine it with a negative particle [“not”] to add a subtle nuance to our words.
“The task is not impossible”. [But we’re not promising that we can meet your deadline, whereas a more direct “It’s possible” implies that it is an option, perhaps an easy one.]
The author Jane Austen was the mistress of this use of negatives. She wrote “he was not unattractive” at a time when ladies were not supposed to say “Wow! He’s cute!” or “He’s so ugly!”
You’ll also find this nuance in the 1960s hit “It’s Not Unusual“, made famous by the evergreen Welsh singer, Tom Jones.
You’ll hear double negatives used in a number of pop songs. This is acceptable in informal, colloquial English. While it’s too risky to try this yourself in conversation, you can sing along with the lyrics I Can’t Get No Satisfaction or We Don’t Need No Education, safe in the knowledge that you recognise the incorrect usage. It is used ironically in Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall, where the rebellious pupils feel they have nothing to gain from memorising the rules of grammar at a strict school. They want to be free to think.
When “No” means “No
This is a very long post for such a simple topic, isn’t it?
If you really only want to say “No“, remember that “No, thank you” is the polite British way to refuse an offer or an invitation. In an emergency, or an uncomfortable situation, a firm “No” is all that is required. If you’re answering a question, and you’d like to continue the conversation, try “No, I don’t. [I’m not, I haven’t…] How about you?”