Building negative sentences

So you’ve mastered the tenses, you know the difference between the present simple, perfect and continuous, but negative sentences are still difficult? When do we use an extra helping verb and when can just add not? Here is a brief guide to building negative sentences in English.

Present simple

When we form negative sentences in the present and past simple, we need a helping verb as well as the word not followed by the main verb. In the present, we use do or does:

I do not like chocolate. / I don’t like chocolate.

He does not like chocolate. / He doesn’t like chocolate.

do(es) + not + base form of main verb (no -s, -ing or to)

As we can see from these examples, we can shorten do not or does not to don’t or doesn’t. We do this a lot when we speak or write informally.

It’s not important what the main verb is, we nearly always need the helping verb to make a negative sentence. Sometimes we can have the verb do twice in once sentence, once as the helping verb and once as the main verb:

She does not do her homework. / She doesn’t do her homework.

This rule also applies to the verb have:

We do not have time. / We don’t have time.

Past simple

It’s the same with the past simple too, but this time we use did not or the short form didn’t:

I did not go to the meeting. / I didn’t go to the meeting.

We did not do the work. / We didn’t do the work.

He did not eat at home. / He didn’t eat at home.

did + not + base form of main verb (no -s, -ing, -ed or to)

The helping verb stays the same here; we don’t need to change it for he/she/it. Another important point to remember is that we don’t need to put the main verb in the past. The did is enough to show we’re talking about the past.

Exceptions

The only time we don’t need a helping verb with the simple tenses are with the verb be or modal verbs (e.g. can, must, should, might, may, will, shall, etc).

I am not at school. / I’m not at school.

He was not in Spain. / He wasn’t in Spain.

We must not open the door. / We mustn’t open the door.

They cannot pass the test. / They can’t pass the test.

She should not drive. / She shouldn’t drive.

Here, we simply add not after be or the modal verb.

Present continuous

Because we already have a helping verb in the sentence, we just add not between the helping verb and the main verb:

I am not going to the party. / I‘m not going to the party.

We are not giving the presentation. / We‘re not giving the presentation.

He is not learning Japanese. / He‘s not learning Japanese.

Other past tenses

Similarly in other past tenses, we already have a helping verb in the sentence (a form of either have or be). This means we just add not after the helping verb and we’re good to go.

We have not been to the cinema. / We haven’t been to the cinema.

I was not talking to my friend. / I wasn’t talking to my friend.

He had not visited Greece before. / He hadn’t visited Greece before.

Future tenses

When we use the helping verb will, we also just add not to the sentence:

I will not go the conference. / I won’t go the conference.

It will not rain tomorrow. / It won’t rain tomorrow.

Summary

The general rule is that if we already have a helping verb in a sentence, we just add not after the helping verb to make a sentence negative. If there is no helping verb (like in the present or past simple), we need to add one (e.g. do or did). There are, however, some exceptions, such as with the verb be or modal verbs.


Do you have other helpful tips for building negative sentences? Or do you have more questions? Feel free to post them in the comments below.

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