Negation in Legal English – Prefixes
Negation is one of the fundamental language functions, fulfilling the important communicative function of conveying a negative meaning or a contradiction.
In Legal English, negation is particularly common given the nature of legal text and utterances.
Legal regulations prescribe to do or not to do things and also provide sanctions for certain acting or not acting.
Bázlik, M., Ambrus, P., A Grammar of Legal English
Negative meaning is usually expressed by the verb but can also be expressed by other parts of speech, e.g. nouns, adjectives, prepositions etc. The most common way is through word formation, specifically by use of negative prefixes.
The simplest way how to attach negative meaning to a noun is by use of a negative prefix, especially with nouns and adjectives.
As every student of English will know, there is very little regularity in the use of negative prefixes in general, not only with nouns, and whatever rules or patterns there are, they all have to do with the historical development of English, the origins of words and their phonetic patterns.
This is usually far too complex for any student to go into so most of us have to do with memorizing lists of words trying to „train our ears“ to what sounds correct.
There is a finite number of negative prefixes:
un-, in-, il-, im-, ir-, non-, dis-, de-, anti- and counter-
They are all negative in meaning, although there are slight differences between them. Dis- often indicated dissent, de- indicates reversed action whereas anti- and counter- carry the additional meaning of opposition.
e.g. agreement – disagreement
obedience – disobedience
abortion – anti-abortion
hero – anti-hero
terrorism – counter-terrorism
revolution – counter-revolution
The good news is, that despite the tedious drilling involved, negative prefixes are not too difficult to learn. Moreover, if you make a mistake and use the wrong prefix, it will not change your overall message. It will simply sound wrong.
This is no solid rule but may help you choose the correct prefix:
im- before m- or p-
impossible, improbable, impartial
immortal, immature, immobile
il- before l-
illegitimate, illogical, illegal
ir- before r-
irregular, irresponsible, irrational
In Legal English, as usual, the situation is more complicated.
The prominent non-
The prefix non- is the most neutral of the list. Therefore it has a more prominent position among the rest of the negative prefixes in that it carries the neutral, unbiased meaning of „the absence of“ ,„the lack of“ or „the failure to“.
e.g. compliance – non-compliance – failure to comply
payment – non-payment – failure to pay, the absence of payment
Because of the neutral quality of the prefix non-, it is much more frequently used in Legal English than the other prefixes.
Sometimes, both non- and other prefixes are in use so it’s important to bear in mind the slight differences in meaning.
Non-natural simply means „not natural“whereas unnatural is something that is not natural in a bad way.
Non-statutory refers to something that is not found in a statue (e.g. a common law principle) whereas unstatutory refers to something that actively breaches a statute.
What’s the opposite?
The opposite of inhabitable is uninhabitable.
Inflammable, however, can mean both flammable and not flammable!
It’s a good idea to consider the context whenever you come across this highly flammable word. J
Opposites or synonyms?
It is worth mentioning here the curious pairs of words which look opposite at first glance but are in fact synonymical in meaning.
e.g. flammable – inflammable (both mean something that burns easily)
habitable – inhabitable (both mean able to be lived in)
The roots of this interesting phenomenon are to be found in the Latin origin of the words.
Inflammable comes from the Latin inflammare (“to set on fire”), from in (“in, on”) + flamma (“flame”).
Inhabitable has the same story, meaning „fit to live in“, from Latin in (“in, on”) + habitare (to dwell).
As we have seen, negation by prefixation is fairly straightforward unless we dig a little deeper where the grammar becomes rather complex and irregular.
To make things more learner-friendly, in General English, practise as much as possible. The more examples you will have seen, the easier it will be for you to choose the correct prefix the next time you need to.
In Legal English, bear in mind the principle of neutrality and take care when using negative prefixes to avoid unwanted bias in meaning.
Bázlik, M., Ambrus, P., A Grammar of Legal English 2nd Edition (Iura Edition, 2010)
Terminologické a gramatické zvláštnosti anglického právneho textu, in Kontexty súdneho prekladu a tlmočenia III, Zborník tlmočníckeho ústavu FF UK, ed. Z. Guldanová (Univerzita Komenského v Bratislave, 2014)
Greenbaum, S., Quirk, R. (1995): A Student’s Grammar of the English Language, Harlow, Essex: Longman.
Haigh, R.: Legal English 3rd edition (Routledge, 2012)
Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. © Cambridge University Press 2013, Version 4.0
Lingea Lexicon 5, ver. 22.214.171.124 © Lingea s.r.o. 2014