Negative Sentences and Questions in English

The rules for forming negative and interrogative sentences using auxiliary verbs in English


Forming negative sentences and forming questions in English may seem complicated at first. The relatively many English verb tenses use different auxiliary verbs that take part in the changes needed when expressing negation and interrogation. Despite having seemingly different grammar rules for each verb tense, there are actually a few simple grammar rules which are applied systematically across all tenses and verb forms. To know more, read these sections of our review on negation and question formation in English.

1. Auxiliary Verbs
2. Negative sentences
3. Yes / No questions
4. Wh questions
5. Wh Subject questions
6. Summary

 

1. Auxiliary Verbs


The verb forms used as auxiliary verbs in English are:
1. to be
am,is,are was,were be,been,being

2. to do

3. to have
have,has had having

4. The modal verbs
can,could shall,should must
may,might will,would
 

2. Negative Sentences


A negative sentence (or statement) states that something is not true or incorrect. A negative adverb has to be added in order to negate or “cancel” the validity of the sentence. This “negation” element is created according to the following general rule.

The Negation Rule: In English, in order to claim that something is not true, you form a negative sentence by adding the word not after the first auxiliary verb in the positive sentence. If there is no auxiliary verb in the positive sentence, as in the Present Simple and Past Simple tenses, then you add one (in both these cases, the auxiliary verb do).

Watch out:
• When an auxiliary verb (including modals) is used, the main verb is not inflected (no s or ed ending), meaning that either the base form or past participle is used.

• The verb to be uses a different negation pattern.

Review the following table for examples of negation in English. Some examples use the contracted forms more used in informal writing and speech, and some others use the full forms.
 
Tense
Negative Element
+ contracted forms
Example
Present Simple
do+not = don’t
does+not = doesn’t
I do not play.
She doesn’t play.
Past Simple
did+not = didn’t
I didn’t play.
Present Progressive
am + not (*no amn’t)
is+not = isn’t
are+not = aren't
I am not playing.
He is not playing.
We aren’t playing.
Past Progressive
was+not = wasn’t
were+not = weren’t
I wasn’t playing.
They were not playing.
Present Perfect
have+not = haven’t
has+not = hasn’t
You haven’t played.
She has not played.
Present Perfect
Progressive
have+not+been= haven’t been
has+not+been = hasn’t been
I have not been playing.
She hasn’t been playing.
Past Perfect
had+not = hadn’t
You hadn’t played.
Past Perfect
Progressive
had+not+been = hadn’t been
She hadn’t been playing.
Future Simple
will+not = won’t
I won’t play.
Future Perfect
will+not+have = won’t have
He will not have played.
Conditional
would+not
She wouldn’t play.
Conditional perfect
would+not+have
She wouldn’t have played.
Modals
can + not = can’t or cannot (formal)
should+not = shouldn’t
I can’t play.
I cannot play.
We shouldn’t play.

 

Note:
In informal writing settings, you can contract the auxiliary verb with either the sentence subject or the word not. In formal writing settings, refrain from contracting any words.
She is not playing. [formal]
She isn’t playing. = She’s not playing. [informal]
 
 

Questions


A question (interrogative sentence) asks about some missing information the speaker would like to have. There are 3 types of questions in English, each asking about a different kind of requested information, and having a different formation rule. Questions usually use a rising intonation towards the end of the sentence, also in positive sentences used as questions.
You like ice-cream ?
[positive sentence intonated as a question]

Do you like ice cream ?
[yes/no question]
 
 

3. Yes / No questions


A Yes/No question is a closed question, meaning that it has one of two answers, yes or no. It asks whether something is true or not, i.e., whether the original positive sentence is valid. A question element needs to precede the subject in order to form this question. The “question element” is formed according to the following rule:

The Y/N Question Rule: To form a yes/no question in English, transfer the first auxiliary verb that appears before the main verb in the positive sentence to the position before the subject. If there is no auxiliary verb, as in the Present Simple and Past Simple, then you add one (in both these cases, the auxiliary verb do).


Watch out:
• When an auxiliary verb (including modals) is used, the main verb is not inflected (no s or ed ending), meaning that either the base form or past participle is used.

• The verb to be uses a different yes/no question pattern

Review the following table for examples of yes/no questions in English.
 
Tense
Question Element
Examples
Present Simple
Do
Does
Do I play ?
Does she play ?
Past Simple
Did
Did I play ?
Present Progressive
Am
Is
Are
Am I playing ?
Is he playing ?
Are we playing ?
Past Progressive
Was
Were
Was I playing ?
Were they playing ?
Present Perfect
Have
Has
Have you played ?
Has she played ?
Present Perfect
Progressive
Have+Subject+been
Has+Subject+been
Have you been playing ?
Has she been playing ?
Past Perfect
Had
Had they played ?
Past Perfect
Progressive
Had+Subject+been
Had she been playing ?
Future Simple
Will
Will I play ?
Future Perfect
Will+Subject+have
Will he have played ?
Conditional
Would
Would she play ?
Conditional perfect
Would+Subject+have
Would she have played ?
Modals
Can
Should
Can I play ?
Should I play ?

 

4. Wh questions


A Wh question is an open question, meaning that it can have any number of answers. It asks about some missing information the speaker needs. This corresponds to the different sentence elements, such as the verb, objects, manner, place, time, purpose, etc. Questions about the subject have a special form (see the next section). A question element needs to precede the subject in order to form this question. The “question element” is formed according to the following rule.

The Wh Question Rule: To form a Wh question in English, add a Wh question word before the corresponding yes/no question.

Watch out:
• When an auxiliary verb (including modals) is used, the main verb is not inflected (no s or ed ending), meaning that either the base form or past participle is used.

• The verb to be uses a different Wh question pattern.

Review the following table for examples of Wh questions in English.
 
Tense
Question about:
Example
Present Simple
Place
Where does she play ?
Past Simple
Time
When did they play ?
Present Progressive
Manner
How is he playing ?
Past Progressive
Direct object
What was he playing ?
Present Perfect
Indirect object
With whom have you played ?
Present Perfect
Progressive
Choice
Which game have you been playing ?
Past Perfect
Reason
Why had they played ?
Past Perfect
Progressive
Frequency
How often had she been playing ?
Future Simple
Number
How much will I play ?
Modals
Possession
Whose role can he play ?
Conditional
Duration
How long would it take ?
Conditional perfect
Age
How old would he have been ?

 

5. Wh Subject questions


A Wh Subject question is an open question, meaning that it can have any number of answers. It asks about missing information the speaker needs about the subject of the sentence (performer of the action). A question element needs to precede the subject in order to form this question. The “question element” is formed according to the following rule.

The Subject Wh Question Rule: To form a subject Wh-question in English, replace the subject with a question word, using who (for people) or what (for non-people) ? The word order is that of a positive sentence.

Watch out:
• There is no auxiliary verb in Wh Subject questions in the Present Simple and Past Simple tenses. The question word simply replaces the subject.

• In the present tenses, the verb is always in the third person singular, using the appropriate verb form.

Review the following table for examples of Wh Subject questions in English.
 
Tense
Question about:
Example
Present Simple
People
Who plays there every week ?
Past Simple
Non-people
What made all that noise ?
Present Progressive
People
Who is playing today ?
Past Progressive
Non-people
What was making all that noise ?
Present Perfect
People
Who’s written this essay ?
Modals
People
Who can help me ?

 

6. Summary

As this review has shown, the rules for negation and question formation are very systematic in English. Each verb tense uses its specific auxiliary verbs and follows the same rules. Reviewing grammar rules is not enough to make you use them properly. The more you pick them up in your reading, and more importantly, use them in your English writing, the better you will use them.


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