Spanish Negative Words: Nothing, Nobody, and Everything in Between
Negation is an integral part of any language, as integral as saying yes. You will encounter the need to do it even in the most basic of conversations you have in your target language. There’s no escaping or even shelving this need. Spanish negative words are funny. Well, it’s the whole system of negation in Spanish that is. Translated word-to-word, Spanish negative expressions make little sense in English. At least in educated English, if not otherwise.
For example, if you have had even a fleeting exposure to Spanish, you’re probably already aware of double negatives. While a strict no-no in English, they’re the norm in Spanish. So, while saying “you don’t want nothing” instead of “you don’t want anything” is unacceptable in English, it’s the only correct thing to do in Spanish. Many other languages such as Russian, Italian, Czech, etc. follow this pattern too. This awkward difference takes some getting used to, indeed. But if you think about it, it’s not really that big of a difference. English speakers routinely practice this construct while speaking informally in some parts of the world, such as parts of Southern United States.
Another interesting quirk in the context of Spanish negatives is that of number. In many cases Spanish feels uneasy using the plural form while negating a noun. English doesn’t have such hang-ups. For example, no problems is perfectly alright in English but you’ll always hear no problema in Spanish. Don’t sweat this one too much, though, because there’s no central rule governing it. This is something you get with exposure rather than grammar books.
A Brief Lowdown on Double Negatives
As I briefly mentioned above, double negatives are the norm in Spanish. Also prevalent in many nonstandard dialects of English. This difference is just a matter of differing philosophies. In English, two negatives are understood to cancel each other out, thus resulting in a funnily contrived-sounding affirmative. In Spanish, on the other hand, two negatives confirm the negation. They do not cancel each other out. In fact, using both affirmative and negative in the same sentence make it ambiguous and hence grammatically unacceptable. Is it a yes or a no? That’s the message it gives.
I don’t know anything.
The above sentence sounds normal in English. But if you translated the same construct into Spanish, it would sound very dicey. On one hand you’re negating the sentence with a don’t, on the other hand you’re diluting the negation with a positive anything. What are you even trying to say? And that’s why the right way to do this translation would be to use Spanish negative words at both places. Something like this:
I don’t know nothing.
The don’t conveys a negative which is later confirmed by nothing. So always remember, no mixing of affirmative and negative, no matter what.
That being said, no two Spanish negative words can be used together either. Confused? Let me break it down. You see, double negative means two negatives can be, and sometimes have to be, used in the same sentence. But the two words cannot come together next to each other. They must be separated by other words. The only exception to this rule is nunca jamás. This this case, the two negatives serve to reinforce each other, much like never ever in English.
Spanish Negative Words
The most ubiquitous Spanish negative word is no. Phew, that wasn’t a surprise, was it? And this no is no different from its English homonym. Just slap it before a verb and it negates the action, just as in English. Except for one difference: In English, no becomes not before a verb; in Spanish, it remains no:
No quiero comer (I don’t want to eat).
No hay problema (There’s no problem).
Spanish no also serves as non in English. Also, while almost all negative compound words involving non- take a hyphen, that’s not the case in Spanish. Thus, non-smoker is no fumador in Spanish. No hyphen, two separate words, see? So to summarize, Spanish no is all three of these in English: no, not, and non.
But, as you already know, no isn’t the only Spanish negative word. There’s many more. Let’s learn nine of them here. These nine words and expressions account for almost all the negation in Spanish. We will see what they mean, how they’re used, and most importantly, how to remember them!
Nada works almost exactly like its English counterpart. You use nada wherever you use nothing. That’s it. The word is fairly easy to memorize, no complex etymology required here. Just think of it as the opposite of another. Nada conveniently rhymes with another minus the a-, especially if spoken in a British accent. Another means one more, so its opposite should kinda mean nothing, even if not exactly so.
Another easy trick is to imagine an empty larder in your kitchen. Nada rhymes with larder, again with a British accent. An empty larder has nothing in it. Imagine you’re starving and want to quickly fix yourself an appetizing meal. But when you open the larder, there’s nothing inside. Nada:
There’s nada in the larder.
And just in case you’re curious, the Spanish version would be:
No hay nada en la despensa.
Notice the double negative? Pick whichever method works for you. Or invent your own. Either way, nada is a hard word to forget, with or without memory or word-association tricks. In fact, of all the Spanish negative words barring no, nada should probably be the easiest. Oh, and the word can also be used as a noun. This is probably the only part where Spanish and English disagree. The English counterparts in this case would be nothingness or nowhere. And when used as such, nada is feminine, notice the -a ending:
¡Ese carro vino de la nada! (That car came out of nowhere!)
This word looks eerily similar to nada and that’s why newbie learners often get the two words mixed up even if they’ve learned both. I know I did, call me stupid if you will. So I crafted a nifty little trick to recall which one’s which. Both nada and nadie have nad- in them, which is why the confusion. And one of them means nothing while the other means nobody. One of them refers to things while the other refers to people. But only one of them has the /ee/ sound, nadie. In English, too, only one of the words has the the /ee/ sound, nobody. There you go, nadie maps with nobody!
Another idea would be to consider the -die in nadie. People die, things don’t. And since nadie has a -die in it while nada doesn’t, nadie maps with nobody once again. I am sure with a little more creativity, you can come up with even better ideas. The trick is to build bridges between the Spanish word and its English meaning. It’s easier than it sounds.
Just like all Spanish negative words, nadie can also translate into its affirmative, if you consider the double-negative rule. So don’t feel awkward if you see nadie in a Spanish sentence become anybody when translated into English. See this example:
No vi a nadie que conociera en la recepción (I did not see anybody I knew at the reception).
Since all words that can be negated, must be negated in a negative statement in Spanish, anybody must become nobody. So essentially what you’re saying is that you did not see nobody you knew at the reception.
Meaning: Nor, not even
In English we have neither and we have nor. In Spanish, we just have ni. One word to serve them both! But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, let’s first focus on ni as nor and nothing else. This isolated usage of nor, without an accompanying neither, is also common in English. Consider the following example:
No quiero ir al cine ni al museo esta noche (I don’t want to go to the movies nor the museum tonight).
Notice there’s just one ni in Spanish and that corresponds to nor in English. So the general rule of thumb is that if you see just one ni in Spanish, it most likely translates into nor. Not always though. Sometimes, it can also mean not even:
Nadie hablaba, ni los niños (Nobody was talking, not even the children).
Here, nor would automatically sound incorrect. So you see, context is your friend when it comes to sentences with just one ni. Ni is arguably the least straightforward of all Spanish negative words, or at least one of them. But don’t let that deter you. Remembering the nor–ni mapping is easy if you imagine the pair as a single word that rhymes with Narnia. Ever been there? Obviously not, the place doesn’t exist.
Narnia does not even exist!
The above mnemonic should take care of both nor and not even. Now that we’re done with what we came here for, here’s a little bonus for you, a fun idiomatic usage of ni. It’s ni que and translates into as if. And just as in English, anything after ni que must be in the subjunctive:
¡Ni que yo fuera tonto! (As if I were stupid!)
And there’s also que ni que, a common expression in Mexican colloquialism. Que ni que is an expression of strong agreement, much like of course or claro que sí. And this is where I picked it from, do check it out.
Remember what I said about double negatives when using Spanish negative words? If the sentence is negative, everything in it ought to be negative.
Moving on, remember what I said about neither? Yeah, such pairs as neither…nor are called copulatives. In Spanish, both translate into ni. So if you see a sentence with two of them, the first one is neither and the second, nor:
No es ni blanca ni negro (It’s neither white nor black).
The ni–neither mapping should be a cakewalk since neither already starts with a /nee/ sound. As you can imagine, coming up with mnemonic devices like this is easier than it seems. Remember what I said about double negatives when using Spanish negative words? If the sentence is negative, everything in it ought to be negative. Now if you think about it, we English speakers sometimes use either…or when we actually mean neither…nor. This happens when there’s another negative in the sentence other than the copulative. That doesn’t work in Spanish. Such cases of either…or also rendered with a ni…ni in this language:
No me quedaré ni mañana ni pasado (I’m not staying either tomorrow or the day after).
Blame it on the no in Spanish and not in English. The rule holds. Again, some vernacular English dialects already use this construct in informal speech.
Wait a minute, ni is neither and tampoco is also neither? What sorcery is this? Let me explain. The two words are not exactly interchangeable. Tampoco is more accurately not…either. When you see either used without a corresponding or and the sentence is in the negative, tampoco is the only acceptable Spanish. This either sometimes also masquerades as neither in English. Confused? Think about it, isn’t neither just not + either in most cases?
Nosotros no fumamos ni él tampoco (We don’t smoke and neither does he).
Yo tampoco lo entiendo, pero ocurrió (I don’t understand it either, but it happened).
Do remember that tampoco is already a negative, no you don’t need an accompanying no. Of all Spanish negative words, tampoco is probably the trickiest. My suggestion is to practice using it thoroughly. Make sentences using the word and also those using ni, hundreds of them. Until you can tell the two apart by instinct.
A quick memory hook for this Spanish negative word is to imagine you have a friend called Tom. Both of you are at common friend’s place and engaged in a drinking game. The common friend, say, Sally, is concerned you guys might throw up after too many drinks. So she asks you to moderate your booze. To which you reply, reassuringly:
I don’t puke. Tom does not puke either.
I don’t know if this helps Sally but it will surely help you remember tampoco and not either. Lame, I know, but the more vivid you make the imagery, the better its retention. Try it!
Nunca can also mean ever but first, let’s focus on the negative. Of all Spanish negative words, nunca is among the most straightforward. On the lines of nada and nadie.
Nunca he probado la langosta (I have never tasted lobster).
How to memorize it? Again, mnemonics. Imagination. What sounds like nunca or at least a part thereof? Here’s my attempt:
A nun can never have sex.
Almost preposterous, right? But that’s what’ll make it stick. The more outrageous the mnemonic, the longer it stays. Nunca rhymes with nun can, minus the -n. And the sentence already has a never for reinforcement. Nunca can also mean ever in some contexts:
Estamos major que nunca (We are better than ever).
This one is a tad hard to explain. The usage of nunca in this example seems a bit arbitrary. But think of better than ever as never better and you might begin to see how it works. Let’s just say you use nunca whenever ever is being used in a comparison. Than ever is que nunca.
Nunca doesn’t rule out a future possibility, jamás does. That’s what makes jamás more emphatic.
As you can see, both jamás and nunca translate into never; that must be thoroughly confusing. To make things even more confusing, the two words can also occur together as a single expression, nunca jamás. Let’s tackle jamás in isolation first. To cut a long story short, the word is a more emphatic version of nunca. If you’re not sure enough, you could try doing what some native speakers do. Imagine a yes/no question, any yes/no question. Take this for example:
¿Has probado el pulpo a la gallega? (Have you tasted Galician octopus?)
Now there’s two way you could answer this question in the negative:
- Never, nor ever will.
Many speakers would pick nunca for the first answer and jamás for the second. Nunca doesn’t rule out a future possibility, jamás does. That’s what makes jamás more emphatic. The good news, however, is that this niche usage renders jamás the most dispensable in the list of Spanish negative words.
Jamás has an interesting history. The word evolved from a Latin expression which meant the exact opposite! The negative interpretation of the word is a rather recent phenomenon. Which is why if you read some medieval Spanish text, you are likely to find jamás used in the sense of siempre (always)!
Memorizing jamás, again, calls for some word-association trickery. The word rhymes with pajamas. Would you ever wear your PJs to work? No way! Never! Jamás!
I never go to work in my pajamas.
As for jamás being more emphatic than nunca, use the accent mark as a cue. See the accent mark in jamás? Think of it as what makes jamás stronger than nunca. Nunca and jamás can also come together as nunca jamás, which is like saying never ever in English.
8. Todavía No
Meaning: Not yet
Todavía means yet and shouldn’t figure in a list of Spanish negative words. But paired with no, it gives us an eligible expression. Translating word-to-word we get yet not which makes little sense. But that’s how Spanish works. Todavía no, not no todavía. See it in action here:
Sé lo que quiero regalarle, pero todavía no lo he encontrado (I know what I want to gift her, but I haven’t found it yet).
Easy, no? But how do you remember todavía? The word starts with a t-. Just picture someone removing that letter and adding it to the end of the word, odavíat. Absurd, right? But now the odd new word ends in something that kinda rhymes with yet! Odavíat, yet. Odavía = odd + yet. Will you easily forget this oddity now?
As an added reinforcement, consider etymology. Todavía is actually a portmanteau of two smaller Spanish words, toda and vía. Toda is feminine for todo which means all, and vía is way. Put together, the word can mean always. But all can also be interpreted as any or whichever. And in this interpretation, todavía becomes anyway. With time, this is the interpretation that persisted and evolved into yet or still. Think of it as notwithstanding, nevertheless, get my drift?
9. Ya No
Meaning: No longer
This one is the last of Spanish negative words — sorry, expression — we will be discussing today. Actually, this should also be the last one there is anyway. Ya isn’t the casual ya of English, not by any stretch of imagination. The English one is a simple yes; the Spanish one is already. Linguists call such pairs false friends. Now if ya means already and no is no or not, ya no literally translates into already not which, despite sounding unnatural, is understandably like no longer. Kinda like it already stopped being. Already indicates the idea that something happened and concluded in the past and is no longer in progress. So, you can see how ya no translates into no more or no longer.
Ya no viven aquí (They don’t live here anymore).
El ángel anunció a las mujeres que Jesús ya no se encontraba en la tumba (The angel announced to the women that Jesus was no longer in the tomb).
As an aside, I’ve covered the ya-todavía conundrum at length in a past article; do check it out if you will. Now coming back to the subject at hand, ya in itself isn’t one of the Spanish negative words. But paired with no, it becomes one. So let’s devise a trick to memorize the word.
Take already and scoop out its innards like a Halloween pumpkin. What are you left with? Ay! See how this is just a mirror image of its Spanish translation? Already, ay, ya. Of course, this is not how ya came to be as the word has a much more complicated etymology. But for now this works, right?
Concluding Thoughts on Spanish Negative Words
Phew, that was a long one! But there you go, all that there is to know about the confusing world of Spanish negative words in a single read. I hope it was as entertaining a read as informative. But merely learning and tricking them into memory isn’t enough. You gotta put them to use. So go ahead, take them for a spin. Get adventurous, make as many sentences using each one of them as you can, preferably hundreds of sentences. Keep writing until they become second nature. 50 sentences per word/expression should be sufficient. And once done writing, try using them in oral conversation, even if only with the mirror. Saying no is an art, master it as early as possible. And don’t forget to share your experiences with the rest of us in a comment below.