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Like opposition, negation refers to a particular way in which language reflects human cognition's view of the world. Linguistic representations of opposition encourage the reader to view phenomena as being somehow opposed to each other — 'Democracy by contrast with corrupt autocracy'. Negation, meanwhile, constructs in a reader or hearer's mind a representation of a situation that is at odds with the reality constructed elsewhere in the text — 'Democracy is not possible in the current political situation'.

There are a number of ways in which negation can be realised in English. Perhaps most straightforwardly, a negative particle can be added to the verb phrase, as in 'The Liberal Democrats won't allow tuition fees to rise' or 'Liberal intervention isn't working'. Pronouns can also be clearly negative, as in 'No one trusts the bankers any longer' or 'Nothing can be done to stop this government from gutting the NHS'. Other representations of negation are more debatable, but would be recognised by most as intuitively negative, e.g. nouns such as 'lack' ('Labour's lack of imagination regarding the economy is letting them down'), verbs such as 'refuse' ('The Conservatives refuse to admit the necessity of a plan B') and adjectives such as 'absent' ('Understanding and forethought were absent from the West's intervention in Iraq').

In each of the above examples, the pragmatic force of negation means that the reader will imagine an alternative reality in which Labour does have imagination, where the Conservatives don't refuse the necessity of a plan B, or in which understanding and forethought weren't absent. Through the use of negation, text producers can encourage readers or hearers to imagine a different world and a different reality — perhaps one that scares them or persuades them to take a certain course of action. For example, the famous Conservative propaganda poster that declared 'Labour isn't working' made a logical presupposition that the Conservatives would work, helping persuade readers that the jobless pictured in the poster would not attain employment under Labour, but would do so with a Conservative government in place. Meanwhile, a headline like "Climate change: there is no plan B" scares the reader by underlining the importance of what there is: a plan A, which — being the only plan on offer — has to be made to work.


Unsurprisingly, negation is common in what is often called 'negative campaigning'. Politicians who are seeking election commonly use negative campaigning — or 'mudslinging' — to focus attention on what is bad about their competitors' campaigns, rather than what is good about their own campaign. This can often frustrate voters, who end up feeling as though none of the campaigners actually have anything positive to offer, and that they are simply being asked to decide which is the lesser of two (or more) evils.

Negation was used repeatedly in the second of the three US presidential debates in 2012. Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were keen to use negative campaigning to highlight the flaws in each other's campaigns.

Mitt Romney on Barack Obama:

"The president has tried, but his policies haven't worked."

"[During Obama's time in office] we have not made the progress we need to
make to put people back to work."

"What we don't need is to have the president keeping us
from taking advantage of oil, coal and gas."

Barack Obama on Mitt Romney:

"When he's asked 'how are you going to do it...' he can't tell you."

"He's got the oil and gas part, but he doesn't have the clean energy part."

"Governor Romney doesn't have a five-point plan, he has a one-point plan."

In each of the examples above, the candidate in question adds a negative particle — 'n't' — to a verb ('have', 'do', 'can') in propositions detailing their opponent's (lack) of achievements/ideas or the nation's needs. This highlights an important fact about negation, and a key reason why negative campaigning is used so much by politicians: the positive/negative binary implied by the use of negation (you are either for me or against me; something is either right or it is wrong) means that a world in which the positive is true is created in the mind of the hearer/reader. So, for example, when Romney states that the president's policies haven't worked, he implies that there could be a world in which the president's policies had (perhaps a world in which Romney had been president instead!); when Obama claims that Romney doesn't have 'the clean energy part', he creates the idea of a presidential candidate who does (someone else — perhaps the only other candidate, Obama?).

Spotting negation

As noted above, negation is frequently used by politicians. When listening to political debates between different parties, or reading party campaign literature, look out for the use of negation and consider how much speech/writing is devoted to conveying a negative world view rather than a positive one!

Recommended reading

The 'Negating' chapter in Jeffries' introductory textbook introduces the concept of negation and provides examples of how ti can be used ideologically:

Jeffries, Lesley. 2010. Critical Stylistics: The Power of English. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 106-113.

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