English English language Grammar

Negative thoughts

Q: A colleague in the operating room where I work said to a patient: “You are allergic to no medications.” We all agree that the sentence is awkward at best, but we are debating whether it is in fact incorrect. Can you provide me with an answer (or at least your expert opinion)?

A: This use of “no” with a noun is a perfectly legitimate way to form a negative statement. “You are allergic to no medications” is simply another way of saying “you are not allergic to any medications.”

You may feel one sentence is more felicitous than the other (because of  rhythm, context, and so on), but both are grammatically acceptable.

In constructions of this kind, you have the choice of using a negative either with the noun or with the verb. One version uses “no” with the noun (“no medications”) and the other uses “not” with the verb (“are not”).

When used with a noun, “no” is an adjective, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains. When used with a verb, “not” (which may be contracted to ’nt) is an adverb; the OED calls it “the ordinary adverb of negation.”

The fact that the noun is plural makes no difference. It could just as well be singular, as in “There’s no milk” (another way of saying  “There isn’t any milk”).

Here are a few more examples. (Note that we sometimes add a form of “do” + “not” to a verb in making it negative.)

“He feels no pain” = “He does not feel any pain.”

“I’ve read no books this year” = “I haven’t read any books this year.”

“We see no problems ahead” = “We don’t see any problems ahead.”

“The applicant has no letters of recommendation” = “The application doesn’t have any letters of recommendation.”

We answered a similar question in 2008 about the legitimacy of “I know of no place” to mean “I don’t know of any place.”

As we wrote then, the two sentences are grammatically equivalent. One may be more graceful than the other, but they’re both correct.

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