The Nature of Negative Adverbs

By the intermediate level, students have gained some familiarity with the patterns so do I and neither/ nor do I.  As they progress to a more advanced level of English, it’s those familiar responses of agreement that should help them understand how negative adverbs require inversion of the subject and operator if used at the beginning of a sentence. For example, seldom do we think we have enough time in a single day. Structure, however, is only one aspect students must study. Students also need to understand why they would move a negative adverb to the front of a sentence and how such a revised sentence can differ in register. Why not simply say, We seldom think we have enough time in a single day?

I appreciate Biber, Conrad, and Leech’s attention to why inversion occurs at all. They list possible discourse functions, ranging from focus to cohesion and information flow. In the case of negative adverbs, inversion of the subject and operator serves the purpose of intensification[1]. Compare: Neighbors sue neighbors for uneven sidewalks only in America. / Only in America do neighbors sue neighbors for uneven sidewalks. The second sentence emphasizes the silliness of Americans with regard to lawsuits and stresses that people in other countries would not act similarly.

I also appreciate Jay Maurer’s attention to the level of formality in his explanation of negative adverbs. For example, he contrasts in no way with no way, noting the latter is more informal. Further, he reminds learners that neither can be used to open a sentence in either formal or informal speech. However, all other examples with negative adverbs are listed as generally more formal. They include little, rarely, and hardly[2]. Biber, Conrad, and Leech extend the list with no sooner, never, nowhere, and on no condition along with a few others.

To truly solidify students’ understanding of inversion with negative adverbs, they must begin to use such sentences in a meaningful context. What activity have you used in the past for this topic? Let’s brainstorm, and I’ll start off the exchange of ideas for practice in my next post.

[Note: A video lesson on negative adverbs is available on my YouTube channel.]


[1] Biber, Conrad, and Leech. (2002). Longman student grammar of spoken and written English. Essex, England: Pearson Longman.

[2] Maurer, J. (2006). Focus on grammar: an integrated skills approach. White Plains, NY: Pearson Longman.

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5 Comments on “The Nature of Negative Adverbs”


  1. [...] English with Jennifer Just another WordPress.com weblog « The Nature of Negative Adverbs [...]

  2. debbie Says:

    Using the negative “not” in this sentence, do you use ‘and’ or ‘or’? We did not survey the site in 2008 and 2009. We did not survey the site in 2008 or 2009. Thank you.

    • englishwithjennifer Says:

      Great question! That could be a future Student Stumper. I think both choices are acceptable, at least in everyday English. However, I think some grammar authorities might say “or” is the better choice in the negative sentence. If you wish to emphasize the negative aspect, I would state: We did not survey the site in either 2008 or 2009.


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