Do you feel bossy today?
Do you feel like telling someone what to do?
Or—better yet—what not to do?
I certainly hope so, since today we’ll talk all about how and when to use negative commands in Spanish.
Let’s not wait any longer! Let’s get right into it—don’t get distracted and don’t stop reading!
All About Negative Commands in Spanish
When and why should we use negative commands?
Negative commands in Spanish are for those moments in life when you need to directly tell someone not to do something.
They’re great, for example, when you need to order someone to knock off some behavior:
¡No fumes aquí! (Don’t smoke here!)
¡No toques eso! (Don’t touch that!)
But they can also come up in regular conversations when you’re being less overtly bossy:
¡No me digas! (That’s amazing! / You don’t say! / Literally, “Don’t tell me!”)
In short, you’re going to need these both for important, urgent situations, and as part of regular conversational Spanish.
Ideally, you should study negative commands after you have a good handle on the Spanish present indicative and present subjunctive; from there, things will be pretty easy. The first part of this post covers how to form Spanish commands, and assumes that you’ve already studied the subjunctive.
But since negative commands are such an important part of speech, you may want to at least be able to recognize them before you actually try to use them yourself. With this in mind, the second section provides a look at the formation of negative Spanish commands for those who haven’t yet studied the subjunctive.
Finally, we’ll look at some common mistakes, an alternate written form and examples of negative commands in action in daily Spanish-speaking life.
To give some context for you grammar nerds out there, this post deals with negative sentences in the imperative mood. Verbal “mood” refers to the reality or state of being that’s expressed; the three Spanish moods are the indicative (factual reality, the most common mood), subjunctive (hypothetical or desired reality) and imperative (for imposing direct orders on reality).
For those who already know the subjunctive: Forming Spanish negative commands
So you’ve already shed some tears trying to master the regular and irregular subjunctive present tense? The good news is that Spanish negative commands use the exact same forms. Simply precede the subjunctive form of the verb with “no” and you have a negative command. Let’s see how that looks.
Negative commands with tú (informal second-person singular; “you”)
The subjunctive tú form for hablar (to speak) is hables, so that will be our negative command form as well.
No hables con ella. (Don’t speak to her.)
Negative commands with usted (formal second-person singular; “you”)
To order around someone with whom you’re on more a formal basis, use the subjunctive usted form. For decir (to say) it’s diga, so we can give a command like:
No diga la verdad. (Don’t tell the truth.)
Negative commands with nosotros (first-person plural; “we”)
This exists in Spanish grammar texts but I haven’t heard it much in conversation. How often does one say, “Let’s all not do something”?
Still, if such a situation should arise, you can take a verb like hacer (to do), put it in the subjunctive form, hagamos, and make a negative sentence:
No lo hagamos así. (Let’s not do it like that.)
Negative commands with vosotros (informal second-person plural; “you all”)
If you’re telling a group of Spaniards what not to do, you’ll use this. The subjunctive vosotros form of hacer (to do/to make) is hagáis. If you imagine that you’re confronting a group of boisterous Spaniards singing in the street at 3 a.m., you may want to say something like:
No hagáis tanto ruido. (Don’t make so much noise.)
Negative commands with ustedes (formal second-person plural; “you all”)
To tell a group of people what to do in a more formal situation (or also in an informal situation in the Americas), use the ustedes form. For example, for entrar (to enter), the subjunctive is entren.
No entren aquí. (Don’t enter here.)
Placement of object pronouns with negative commands
In commands, you don’t use the subject pronouns (notice how tú, vosotros, etc. were left out of the example sentences above), but you will sometimes need to include object pronouns (me, te, lo, la, le, nos, etc.).
Remember that object pronouns are used to replace the names of the person or thing(s) receiving the action of the verb. These get placed directly before the verb in negative commands, and as usual the order for pronouns is reflexive, indirect, direct (the acronym RID can help you remember).
¡No te vayas! (Don’t leave!) (From the reflexive verb irse, to go/leave)
No lo mires. (Don’t watch it.)
No le digas nada. (Don’t tell her/him anything.)
No nos lo compres. (Don’t buy it for us.) (The indirect pronoun nos [us] comes before the direct pronoun lo [it].)
For those who haven’t studied the subjunctive yet: Recognizing Spanish negative commands
Even if you haven’t yet studied the (admittedly a bit complicated) subjunctive, putting together a negative command is all too simple.
1. Take your verb.
2. Remove the -ar, -er or -ir ending.
3. If it’s an -ar verb, add an -er ending. If it’s an -er or -ir verb, add an -ar ending. (And use the conjugation for the same person. If you’re speaking in second person singular, add that ending for the second person singular.)
4. Add no before the verb.
So, bailas is how you’d say “you dance.” If you want to tell your friend to not dance, you’d change bailas to no bailes.
4. no bailes
You can change habla (he, she, you [singular, formal] talk[s]) to no hable, for a polite way to tell someone “don’t talk.” Add a por favor to the beginning or end of the phrase for added politeness.
Likewise, you can change escriben (they, you [plural] write) to no escriban to tell a group of people, “don’t write.”
So, if you hear an –ar verb conjugated with an –e… ending (-es, -e, -emos, -éis, -en) instead of an –a… ending, and it’s preceded by the word no, that’s a good clue that you’re being told not to do something.
For example, with the word bailar (to dance), if you hear no bailes you’re being told not to dance, rather than a statement of fact about you not dancing (no bailas — you don’t dance).
For –er and –ir verbs, be aware that the same thing might be going on when you hear an –a… ending (-as, -a, -a, -áis, -an). You can see examples of these, plus some of the charming (horrifying) irregularities of the Spanish subjunctive, in the examples above and throughout this post.
It’s worth at least being aware of this usage even if you’re not yet ready to tackle memorizing all of these forms yet.
The two most common mistakes with negative commands
1. The most common mistake I hear from Spanish learners is simply using the indicative present tense instead of the negative command form when they want to tell someone not to do something. This can result in some amusing misunderstandings.
For example, if you shout, “¡No me llamas!” at a persistent, annoying suitor, he will think he should call you! Why? You’ve used the indicative, and it translates as “You don’t call me!” He will thus think you’re upset because he’s not calling you, and take that as an invitation. The better way to lose this jerk is to shout, “¡No me llames!” (Don’t call me!).
2. Remember that Spanish loves its double negatives! You therefore must not say
“No digas algo” but rather “No digas nada” (Don’t say anything, literally “Don’t say nothing”).
Negative commands in written signs
For posted signs, it’s common to see the infinitive (-ar, -er, -ir forms) proceeded by the word no. You will thus see:
NO FUMAR (NO SMOKING)
NO ESTACIONAR/NO ESTACIONARSE (NO PARKING)
Using negative commands in conversational Spanish
If we give orders, they’re most often orders for the people who are closest to us. The tú form is thus particularly prominent in conversational Spanish.
- No pongas la mesa. (Don’t set the table.)
- No bebas nada. (Don’t drink anything.)
Americans (particularly Midwesterners like me) tend to use “please” a lot more frequently than Spanish speakers use por favor, but you can certainly tack it on to the end of your negative commands if you like.
The most common imperative conversational interjection that you’ll hear is no me digas (you don’t say/don’t tell me), which we saw in the introduction. You can use it any time you want to express surprise, dismay or enthusiasm.
To informally express surprise, there are other extremely common conversational interjections that take the exact same form (¡No me ____!), but which introduce various translations of “The F-word” instead of digas. These are also conjugated for their tú forms of the subjunctive.
We’re too classy to specify those words here, but you can use your dictionary to figure them out. To the Spanish ear, these phrases don’t sound nearly as vulgar as their translations would imply to an English speaker; you’ll hear even nice little old ladies on park benches use them.
Ready to tell the Spanish-speaking world what not to do? I hope so!
You should now have some of the most common negative commands on the tip of your tongue, as well as the knowledge of how to form more of them when people around you need to stop whatever they’re doing.
Enjoy being bossy!
Mose Hayward is passionate about music and travel, and thus blogs about the very best portable bluetooth speakers and other basic necessities for the wanderer.
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