I can say 歩いて渡る which translates to "to cross by walking". However, if I would like to say "I am not going to cross by walking, but by some other means", would I say 歩かないで渡る or 歩いて渡らない?

There are many other examples, most of which involve the use of the so-called Japanese auxilary verbs that follow the te-form of the verb they "help" (ある, いる, くれる, あげる, もらう, 行く, 来る, etc). I don't like this term because I view them as just normal verbs.

Another example would be 食べている. To say that "(I) am not eating", it would be 食べていない instead of the more logical structure 食べないでいる, which would, at least in my opinion, nicely and logically translate to "I am not in the state of eating". This is because the verb that needs the negation is the verb 食べる, not the verb いる.

Explanations from linguistic points of view are also welcome.

I hate to treat this kind of verbs as auxiliary verbs. They are just verbs chained together using serial verb construction, which exists in a number of East Asian languages (Korean, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, etc), and at least in my first language, I would treat them as normal verbs chained together to indicate:

(1) a sequence of actions happening one after another

(2) a set of actions happening simultaneously as in 歩いて渡る and 食べている

(3) cause-effect

(4) method as in 歩いて渡る

So the concept is pretty much the same, except for the fact that in Japanese these verbs are "special" when it comes to negation.



cross without walking

not cross on foot

In this case you want the second option.

For "not eating" it is usually

I haven't eaten

whereas 食べないでいる is used to put emphasis on the duration of staying without eating, but 食べていない also implies a continued state of being without food.

(There is more on this in this question.)

The general rule seems to be to negate the auxiliary verb, unless you particularly want the other meaning, e.g. compare


where the first phrase means "doing something for someone by not doing something else" and the second phrase means "not doing something for someone by doing something else".

Edit. Since this answer has been downvoted and the OP still seems to be active, let me just add what exactly I meant by "食べないでいる is hardly used" in a previous revision of this answer.

The BCCWJ corpus yields the following results

 88 results 食べていない
133 results 食べてない
  1 result  食べないでいる

so the form 食べないでいる needs the right context to be the natural choice. In case of the corpus the sentence is

実際お菓子を 食べないでいる ことは無理だと思います。
I think that actually staying without eating sweets is just not possible.

  • I can see no differences in meaning between the first two English sentences. – takwing Mar 15 '13 at 11:21
  • @takwing "cross without walking" implies crossing; "not cross on foot" doesn't. – snailboat Mar 15 '13 at 11:29
  • Does the verb "wataru" act as an auxiliary verb ? What rules do we use to identify whether a verb acts as an auxiliary verb unless the verb is one of the common auxiliaries (aru,iru,iku,kuru,ageru,kureru,morau,miru,oku,etc). "wataru" is in almost every situation considered a normal verb and therefore is not in the list. – takwing Mar 15 '13 at 12:06
  • 1
    in 歩かないで渡る you say that you are crossing (without walking), in 歩いて渡らない you say that you are not crossing (as long as you are walking)... I don't regard 渡る an auxiliary in this case, which is probably why it is possible to have to sensible interpretations of negating both parts separately. (There is also 歩かないで渡らない "As long as I'm not walking, I won't cross".) When the second verb is an auxiliary, the verb+aux. is considered as one whole and the negation is done by the auxiliary. Trying the negation on the full verb, you have to reinterpret the auxiliary as full verb, too. – Earthliŋ Mar 15 '13 at 13:35
  • "「食べないでいる」 is hardly used."? It is often used. – l'électeur Aug 3 '14 at 7:58

In the Vて+V case, I think loosely translating て as "by" here helps give a little intuition:

歩いて渡る "cross by walking"
歩かないで渡る "cross (not by walking)"
歩いて渡らない "not (cross by walking)"

However, this intuition does not hold with auxiliary verbs (補助動詞{ほじょどうし}), and certainly not with inflectable particles (助動詞{じょどうし}).

With auxiliary verbs, you sometimes can't negate the base verb. For example, the auxiliary verb いる has nothing to do with the verb 居る, it is just an aspectual marker indicating the progressive in the case of action verbs, and the stative form in the case of state-change verbs. And because of this, you can only negate the entire thing, not the "inner verb", because there is no inner and outer verb, there is only a single verb which is modified grammatically.

With other auxiliary verbs, such as あげる, you can negate the inside because you can "(not V) for someone" and also "not (V for someone)".

Essentially, some auxiliary verbs simply perform a grammatical function, and with those, it does not make sense to negate the base verb.

With inflectable particles (ます, たい, etc.), they all only perform grammatical functions, so it never makes sense to negate inside them and negation comes last.

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