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Portuguese Grammar: Double Negatives

The rules of English and Portuguese grammar are quite different when it comes to double negatives. When you learn with one of our tutors, you’ll discover this quite early on, because double negation is very common in Portuguese. In this post, we’ll go through the differences between double negatives in English and Portuguese, looking at the rule of concordância negativa, which does not exist in English.

English vs. Portuguese

In English grammar, we are taught that two negatives make a positive. For example, “I didn't see nothing” is considered incorrect if the speaker wishes to indicate that they did not see anything or that they saw nothing, because the two negatives “didn’t” and “nothing” cancel each other out. Instead of denying that they saw something, the speaker is affirming it. “I didn’t see nothing” means “I saw something.”

For Romance languages such as Portuguese, this is not the case. In Portuguese grammar there is a law called concordância negativa (negative concord). This means that multiple negatives in the same clause reinforce rather than cancel each other. For example, if we translate our previous example “I didn’t see nothing” literally, word by word, into Portuguese, we get eu não vi nada. However, because of concordância negativa, the meaning of this sentence is the opposite of the English original—it means the speaker saw nothing.

This feature of Portuguese grammar is very common—in fact, in many cases the usual way to express a negative fact in Portuguese is to use what in English would be considered a double negative. Below are three examples of negative statements in English that, when translated into Portuguese, use concordância negativa, with the negatives underlined.

I didn't see anything.

Eu não vi nada.

I don't have any money at all.

Eu não tenho dinheiro nenhum.

There's nobody in the room.

Não tem ninguém no quarto.

As you can see, each of the English sentences above has one negative, whereas each of the Portuguese sentences has two. However, because of the different approaches of English and Portuguese grammar when it comes to the double negative, the meanings are the same.

Triple Negatives

It's also worth noting that the rule of concordância negativa extends to cases where there are three or even more negatives in the same clause. In other words, in Portuguese grammar additional negatives in the same clause always reinforce the meaning, and never reverse it. For example, in Portuguese you can say eu não disse nada a ninguém (I didn't say anything to anybody, or in a literal translation, I didn’t say nothing to nobody).

What Happens with Negatives in Separate Clauses?

The law of concordância negativa only applies to negatives in the same clause of a sentence. You could have a sentence like não é o caso que eu não disse nada (it's not the case that I didn't say anything), which means “I said something,” but this is because não é o caso que (it's not the case that) is a separate clause from eu não disse nada (I didn't say anything). As long as they are in the same clause, in Portuguese grammar two negatives always make a negative.

Learn Portuguese Grammar Today!

The rule of concordância negativa is just one of many concepts of Portuguese grammar absent from English. When you practice with our expert tutors, you can gain an intuitive grasp of the differences between the two languages and become a confident speaker of grammatical, idiomatic Portuguese. Book a lesson today!

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