When you learn Spanish, no is probably one of the first words you learned – it's the same word in English, after all!
Something as common as no should be simple. But there are some parts of negation in Spanish that can be downright tricky.
This article is going to introduce you to the basics of Spanish negation. And some situations that can confuse you, including:
Before we jump into the technical aspects of Spanish negation, let's take a minute to answer one very important question—
Why did I dedicate an entire article to something as simple as Spanish negation?
Because it's truly a part of every level of Spanish.
Whether you're just starting out or moving from intermediate to advanced Spanish speaking, chances are good that you can learn something about Spanish negation that will make it easier for you to understand native Spanish speakers. And to be understood by them in return.
Take a look at the following exchange between friends:
Even this very simple conversation can't happen without negation.
If your goal is to improve your fluency, negation is a great skill to work on because it is part of just about every conversation you'll have in Spanish.
By the way : if you're struggling to get your head round negation and other Spanish grammar concepts, then I recommend Grammar Hero, my story-based course that will help you master grammar, without translating in your head.
Let's start with what words and phrases that signal a negative in Spanish:
The simplest way to make a sentence negative in Spanish is to add no. Fueron al concierto. (They went to the concert.) becomes the exact opposite with the addition of no:
Because of the way Spanish negation differs from English, nada translates to both “nothing” and “anything” (when used in a negative sentence):
Like “nobody” is in English, nadie is a singular pronoun. Notice how the verb associated with nadie is conjugated in the singular in these examples:
Spanish has two words for “never”, and they can be used more or less interchangeably:
They can also be used together to express something more emphatically:
Ninguno is unique because its ending changes based on the noun that follows it.
It's relatively simple to remember “neither…nor” in Spanish, because they are both the same word: ni!
Just remember, any verb that appears before the first “ni” in a sentence must be negative as well:
In some sentences, tampoco translates to “either” (when used in a negative context):
Ni and tampoco can also be used together to for more emphasis:
Adding no to the Spanish word for still (todavía) turns it into “not yet” or “still not”:
Similarly, “already” (ya) becomes “not anymore” with the addition of no:
The easiest way to make a sentence in Spanish negative is to place no in front of the verb and after the subject:
Estoy cansada porque trabajé mucho (I'm tired because I worked a lot) has the opposite meaning with no: No estoy cansada porque no trabajé mucho (I am not tired because I did not work a lot).
In the case of compound tenses, such as verbs formed with haber, no comes before the first verb:
Here's another example that might make you stop and think about the subject and verb before you know where to put the no. And can teach you a few other points about negation in Spanish:
In this case, the negative word comes before both the verb and the pronoun. Because the subject is unstated, no is the very first word in the sentence. If the subject (yo) had been stated, the no would come after that:
No, YO no los conosco.
You could also answer the question more passionately with a second negative, which you can read more about in the next section:
In English, using more than one negative in a sentence is considered poor grammar.
“I don't want any dinner” is fine, but “I don't want no dinner” is not.
In Spanish, double negatives are not only acceptable…they are often required.
In English, we say: “We didn't eat any of the food.” While in Spanish, it's correct to say: “No comimos nada de la comida.”
If you're translating word by word, the Spanish sentence literally translates to “We did not eat none of the food.”
Double negatives may sound wrong to you when you think about them in English. But it will sound normal and correct to any native Spanish speaker.
This is just one more reason why literally translating sentences is much less effective than learning to speak Spanish by listening to and speaking authentic Spanish.
You want to become familiar with the sound and rhythm of Spanish. And not just think of something in English and translate it word for word.
While double negatives are common (and often required) in Spanish, there are some times that only one negative word is needed, such as with indefinite pronouns.
An indefinite pronoun is a pronoun that doesn't refer to any specific person or thing. (For example, “anything”, “something”, and “anyone” are all indefinite pronouns in English.)
Negative indefinite pronouns Spanish include nada, nadie, nunca, and tampoco. These can be used alone when the indefinite pronoun comes before the verb:
When the indefinite pronoun comes after the verb, however, you need an additional negative (no) for the sentence to be correct:
Take a look at the following affirmative example sentences and see if you can figure out how to make them negative using what you learned in this article:
What if we want to make these sentences negative? To say that she does not go to the beach on holiday or speak to anyone in the office? Where does the negation belong?
How did you do? Did you remember that the negation always comes after the subject and before the verb?
Here's one last test—how do you make the first sentences more emphatic? To say that Marisol never goes to the beach?
As you can see from the examples above, there are a few different ways of negating something in Spanish, often depending on how emphatically you want to make your point.
With plenty of exposure to authentic Spanish through speaking regularly and listening to/reading as much Spanish as you can, the rhythm and phrasing of negation will start to be second nature to you.
In the meantime, use this guide to troubleshoot anything that confuses you about negation in Spanish.
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Which aspects of Spanish grammar do you find most tricky? Let me know in a comment below!