It’s always important to be able to express the negative such as when something is absent or not true, never happens or when something is neither one thing nor another. This section explores the different contexts and means available to you to communicate this, which is arguably just as important as stating that something simply ‘is’.
Exploring no, not, nowhere and never
The word ‘no’ should never be underestimated! It’s the same or similar in so many languages that it may seem simple to communicate and understand. To be accurate and unambiguous, however, you need to understand when and how to use ‘no’ and the related concepts such as not, none, never, no-one, neither, and so on.
Interestingly, the word ‘No’ in so many languages sounds similar or the same, for example non in French, nei in Norwegian, ne in Latvian and não in Portuguese, and in both Italian and Spanish it’s just…
But let’s take things a step further… In English ‘no’ can be a polite refusal or a denial (no!), it’s used to indicate the absence of things or people (no bread left), or when something is against the rules (no smoking). It’s used in comparison (no better person for the job; I can do no more) and in idomatic phrases (no time like the present!). No is, in short a very useful word, and has spawned offspring like no-one, nobody, nowhere, nothing, none and not. You’ll not be surprised, then, that Spanish has it’s very own ‘No family’. Some will be familiar, others less-so, and the ‘double negative’ (e.g. no hay nada – there in’t anything – not nothing!) is a common occurrence, perhaps taking a little getting used to.
People and objects: nobody, nothing, none
The most basic absence of something is the word for ‘nothing’ – nada. When describing the absence of something, ‘none’ on its own is ninguna (fem.) or ninguno (masc.) ‘No’ before a feminine noun is still ninguna , and when used before a masculine noun ‘no’ becomes ningún. This is the case whether referring to singular or plural nouns.
There are none – Hay ninguno/ninguna
None of them – ninguno de ellos / ninguna de ellas
in no way – de ningún modo or de ninguna manera
No train goes to Madrid – ningún tren va a Madrid
Nowhere – en ninguna parte
No table is free – ninguna mesa está libre
No-one or nobody is nadie but this can read as anyone or anybody where nadie is used in comparison: nadie ha venido aquí – nobody has come here ; but Puede explicarlo mejor que nadie – he can explain it better than anyone ; No hay nadie mejor – there isn’t anyone better / there’s no-one better
This last example introduces the double negative, avoided so far, so it’s worth exploring this in a little more detail below.
The double negative.
Unlike in English, Spanish uses the double negative frequently, so this can cause some confusion. So first some examples you may come across:
No hay nada – there is nothing (a double negative)
No es nada – It’s nothing
Eso no te servirá nada – that will get you nowhere (will not do anything for you)
In principle, if the negative word is put at the start of a sentence, this signals a negative phrase to the listener, so a double negative is not needed in this case, as in:
Nadie fuma en este equipo – No-one in this team smokes
Nunca comen antes de un partido – They never eat before a match
En este equipo, no hay nadie que fuma – There isn’t anyone who smokes in this team
Antes de un partido, ellas no comen nunca. – Before a match they never eat.
The word order dictates where any subtle emphasis might lie. For example in the first two examples above, the emphasis is more on the fact ‘no-one smokes’ or ‘they never eat’, whereas in the latter two ‘there is no-one’ who smokes, and it’s ‘before a match’ that they don’t eat (they may eat afterwards though). These differences are subtle and affected by the flow of conversation. Hopefully, the context and general direction of a conversation or argument will also help to make the sense clear.
Place and time: nowhere and never
As you’ll have seen above, there isn’t a single word for ‘nowhere’. To express ‘nowhere’ (en ninguna parte) you’re actually saying ‘in no place’. Similarly, ‘somewhere’ is en alguna parte, and ‘everywhere’ is either por todas partes or en todas partes depending on whether it refers to movement (por) or location (en).
‘Never’ is nunca, and you’ll find this often uses the double negative, but word order can also help without a double negative, as in the examples below, and as explained in the above section on double negatives.
No practica nunca. He/she never practices.
Nunca practica. He/she never practices.
Jamás also means’never’ but is more often encountered in such phrases as nunca jamás
Anything, anyone, something, somebody, neither, nor…
Although the focus here is on the negative, there are of course words like any, anything and someone which usually have positive connotations.
Something is algo, and this forms the base for a number of related words, including ‘any’, which if not used in a negative sense, is alguna/alguno, or algún before a masculine noun
‘Anyone’ or ‘anybody’ or ‘someone’ is alguien, regardless of gender or number.
Ni…ni…translates as the English ‘neither… nor…’, for example
Este hotel ni es caro ni comodo – this hotel is neither expensive nor comfortable.
Neither or either is generally expressed using tampocooften including a double negative:
‘I don’t believe the skill is easy to learn, either’ – No creo que la habilidad es fácil aprender tampoco.
‘Neither do I believe the skill is easy to teach’ – Tampoco no creo que la habilidad es fácil enseñar.
‘Me neither’ or ‘Nor me’ or ‘Not me either’ – Yo tampoco
Prohibition and the non- prefix
The negative form of a verb is simply expressed by placing no before the verb,
e.g. ‘I do not sleep’ is No duermo ; ‘I do not play football’ is No juzgo futbol
I do not read big books – No leo libros grandes ; They are not big – No son grandes
Similarly a noun can be made negative by adding no, e.g. a non-smoker – un no fumador(a)
Expressing prohibited activities, for example where you might see ‘No Smoking’ in English general uses the verb prohibir : No entry dirección prohibida ; No-go area zona prohibida ; No smoking Prohibido fumar
The following are examples of words where, in English, we would use ‘non-’ as a prefix, but which take different forms in Spanish.
Non-alcoholic sin alcohol (without alcohol) ; Nonstop sin parar (without stopping) ;
Non profit-making sin lucrativo ; Non-smoking no fumador
Nonexistent inexistente ; Non-stick antiadherente
Nonsense (n.) is tonterias, while the expression ‘That’s nonsense’ is eso es absurdo (that’s absurd)