Negative adverbs and negative adverbials (groups of words that function as an adverb) are used to modify the meaning of a verb, adjective, other adverb, or entire clause in a negative way. Like all adverbs, they usually answer questions about manner, place, time, or degree.
No and Not
There is debate whether no and not should be classed as adverbs, but they are by far the most commonly used words for creating negative statements, so we’ll briefly look at how they work.
We use no as a negative answer to questions or an expression of disagreement. It’s often classed as a determiner or an exclamation, but other grammarians argue that it’s an adverb, especially when it is used to negate comparative adjectives or comparative adverbs. For example:
- “He is no better than his rival.”
- “She runs no more quickly than her sister.”
Using not with auxiliary and modal verbs
To negate a verb phrase, we insert not after the first auxiliary or modal verb. For example:
- “I have seen him here before.” (positive)
- “I have not seen him here before.” (negative)
- “I would have done the same.” (positive)
- “I would not have done the same.” (negative)
Using not with only a main verb
If the verb phrase contains only a main verb, we negate it by adding do/does/did + not. For example:
- “I go swimming on Mondays.” (positive)
- “I do not go swimming on Mondays.” (negative)
- “He works every day.” (positive)
- “He does not work every day.” (negative)
- “We went to the supermarket yesterday.” (positive)
- “We did not go to the supermarket yesterday.” (negative)
Using not with the verb be
When a form of the verb be is the only verb in the statement, we place not after it. For example:
- “They are tall.” (positive)
- “They are not tall.” (negative)
- “It is an interesting project.” (positive)
- “It is not an interesting project.” (negative)
Other negative adverbs
Now that we have seen how no and not are used, let’s look at other negative adverbs. The principle characteristic they all have in common is that we don’t modify them with not because they already express negative meaning on their own.
Negative adverbs meaning “almost not”
Some negative adverbs mean “almost not.” They are:
These negative adverbs are placed in the same position as not. They generally go after the first auxiliary or modal verb, before a main verb when it is the only verb, and after forms of the verb be.
- “I hardly go out anymore.” (I almost don’t go out anymore.)
- “I can barely see the mountain through the clouds.” (I almost can’t see it.)
- “It’s scarcely surprising that you’re quitting your job.” (It is not very surprising at all.)
Negative adverbs meaning “not often” or “not ever”
When we want to stress how infrequently something occurs, we can use these negative adverbs:
- no longer
- barely ever
- hardly ever
Again, these adjectives are usually placed in the same position as not. For example:
- “I no longer cook at home.” (I cooked at home before, but now I don’t.)
- “He has seldom/rarely/hardly ever played football.” (very infrequently)
- “We are never late.” (not ever)
Note that seldom, rarely, barely ever, and hardly ever are interchangeable. They all mean “very infrequently.”
Negative adverbs that emphasize quick succession of events
When we want to express that two events happened in quick succession (one event almost did not finish before the next event happened) we can use any of these negative adverbs:
- no sooner
Some of these are the same negative adverbs that mean “almost not,” but when we use them for events in quick succession, we must use them in combination with either when (for hardly, scarcely and barely), or than (for no sooner).
The first event is usually expressed in the past perfect tense, with the negative adverb following the auxiliary verb had. The two clauses are joined with when or than (depending on which negative adverb is used), and the second event follows in the past simple tense.
- “We had hardly finished cleaning when the guests arrived.”
- “I had barely walked in the door when she called.”
- “She had scarcely been home five minutes when they arrived to take her to the movie.”
- “We had no sooner put dinner on the table than the doorbell rang.”
Adverbial phrases for total negation
There are a few adverbial phrases that are used to completely negate a clause. For example:
- under no circumstances
- in no way
- on no condition
Like not, these adverbials can be placed in mid position:
- “We in no way like this plan.” (We don’t like this plan.)
- “We have under no circumstances allowed them to come inside.” (They have definitely not been allowed inside.)
- “She is on no condition to be disturbed.” (Don’t disturb her.)
However, they are more commonly placed in initial position using inversion, which we will examine later in this article.
Using only for conditional negativity
Only can be used when we want to place conditions on whether something is going to occur or not. It most closely means “exclusively,” and can be used in several combinations. For example:
- only … after
- only … if
- only … when
- only … until
Usually, we place only before the action that may or may not occur, and if/after/when/until before the condition. For example:
- “I will only go to the movie if you go too.”
- Meaning: I am not going to the movie if you don’t go.
- “I’ll only help you when you ask for it.”
- Meaning: I will not help you when you don’t ask for help.
- “They are only living here until they find a new house.”
- Meaning: They will leave here when they find a new house.
We have shown how negative adverbs are often placed in mid position. However, it’s also very common for negative adverbs to appear at the beginning of a sentence. This is often done in more formal or literary styles, as well as when we want to place special emphasis on the negative adverb.
When we place the negative adverb at the beginning of the sentence, we must use inversion. This is when we rearrange the normal subject/verb order of the sentence. We already use the principle of inversion all the time when we form questions. For example:
- “He has seen this movie.” (no inversion)
- “Has he seen this movie?” (inversion)
To form the question, the subject (he) and the auxiliary verb (has) switch places. The process is the same when we use negative adverbs.
Inversion with auxiliary/modal verbs
If a negative adverb is being used at the beginning a sentence that has a modal or auxiliary verb, we simply switch the order of the first auxiliary/modal verb and the subject. For example:
- “I have never seen such a beautiful creature.” (no inversion)
- “Never have I seen such a beautiful creature.” (inversion)
- “We had scarcely arrived home when they called.” (no inversion)
- “Scarcely had we arrived home when they called.” (inversion)
- “He can under no circumstances play that game.” (no inversion)
- “Under no circumstances can he play that game.” (inversion)
Inversion with only a main verb
If a negative adverb is placed at the beginning of a sentence that contains only a main verb, we must insert the auxiliary verbs do/does or did and use the bare infinitive form of the verb, just like when we form questions. For example:
- “We in no way like this plan.” (no inversion)
- “In no way do we like this plan.” (inversion)
- “She scarcely leaves the city anymore.” (no inversion)
- “Scarcely does she leave the city anymore.” (inversion)
- “He barely stopped in time.” (no inversion)
- “Barely did he stop in time.” (inversion)
Inversion with the verb “be”
When a negative adverb begins a sentence that only contains the verb be, we switch the order of the subject and be (again, the same as when we form questions):
- “We are seldom late.” (no inversion)
- “Seldom are we late.” (inversion)
- “He is hardly working.” (no inversion)
- “Hardly is he working.” (inversion)
- “She is on no condition to be disturbed.” (no inversion)
- On no condition is she to be disturbed.” (inversion)
Inversion of “only” for conditional negativity
When we form negative conditional expressions with only, we have to do a bit more rearranging. The entire conditional clause joins only in the beginning of the sentence, and the subject-verb word order changes in the main clause. For example:
- “I will only go to the movie if you go too.” (no inversion)
- “Only if you go too will I go to the movie.” (inversion)
- “I’ll only help you when you ask for help.” (no inversion)
- “Only when you ask for help will I help you.” (inversion)
- “They are only living here until they find a new house.” (no inversion)
- “Only until they find a new house are they living here.” (inversion)
Negative adverbs leave lots of room for little mistakes. The most common errors are using double negatives, not using inversion when starting a sentence with a negative adverb, and misunderstanding or misusing the negative adverb hardly.
In English, we generally cannot use double negatives, which occur when two negative elements are used in the same part of a sentence. We must remember that when we use a negative adverb, we cannot further negate the sentence with no, not or another negative adverb because the two negatives cancel each other out, making the sentence affirmative in meaning. For example:
- “You shouldn’t under no circumstances cheat on a test.” (incorrect)
- Literal meaning: There are certain circumstances under which you should cheat.
- “You should under no circumstances cheat on a test.” (correct)
- Meaning: You should never cheat.
- “I scarcely had not enough time to get ready.” (incorrect)
- Literal meaning: I actually had plenty of time to get ready.
- “I scarcely had enough time to get ready.” (correct)
- Meaning: I almost did not have enough time.
Using double negative for emphasis
While we should generally avoid using double negatives in our speech and writing, there are certain circumstances in which they can be used for an emphatic or rhetorical effect to highlight that a negative element is not the case.
The most correct way to use a double negative in this manner is to pair a negative adverb with a negative adjective, as in:
This usage is especially common in literary writing. In more day-to-day writing and speech, it is more common to use two adverbial nots together to emphasize that a negative action did not happen. For example:
However, this is a much less formal construction, so it should only be used sparingly and not in formal or professional writing at all.
Not using inversion
Another common error is when we place a negative adverb at the beginning of the sentence but forget to use inversion. For example:
- “Under no circumstances can you watch that movie.” (correct)
- “Under no circumstances you can watch that movie.” (incorrect)
- Meaning: You cannot watch that movie.
- Explanation: You must invert the order of the subject (you) and the modal verb (can).
- “Never did he visit the Eiffel Tower.” (correct)
- “Never he did visit the Eiffel Tower.” (incorrect)
- Meaning: He never visited the Eiffel Tower.
- Explanation: You must invert the order of the subject (he) and the modal verb (did).
Finally, a common error is misusing or misunderstanding the meaning of the negative adverb hardly. Although many adverbs are formed by adding “-ly” to the end of an adjective, this is not the case with hardly.
The adverb form of the adjective hard is also hard. Hardly, however, never means “in a hard way,” but rather means “almost not.” For example:
- “He’s working hard.” (correct—He’s working a lot or with much effort.)
- “He’s hardly working.” (correct—He’s almost not working at all.)
- “He’s working hardly.” (incorrect)
(See the chapter section on Regular and Irregular Adverbs to learn more about adverb forms that are exceptions to the conventional rules of English.)