Double Negatives

Ask a grammar geek about the double negative, and you’ll invariably hear about its long and noble heritage in the English language, from Chaucer to Shakespeare, up to the 18th century, when it all but died at the hands of overly zealous, systematizing Enlightenment linguists.

Whatever its history, however, the current view of most pragmatic writers is that the double negative should be avoided, if for no other reason than that a crotchety old English teacher might discover it and try to publicly humiliate them for using it. In many cases, people will read a double negative as if it equals a positive. One exception, as the American Heritage Dictionary of English Usage points out, is the expression, “You ain’t seen nothing yet,” which any reasonable person would admit is the equivalent of “You haven’t seen anything yet.”

The problem with the double negative is probably more social than grammatical. Sadly, many people are quick to make assumptions about the education, intelligence, or even social class of someone when they hear him or her use a double negative such as “I didn’t do nothing last night,” or “I couldn’t find nothing at the store.” My advice is to avoid it, especially in writing or when standard spoken English is expected.

Extra Credit

One form of a double negative is also an example of the rhetorical figure litotes, or the use of understatement by denying the contrary. (e.g. She is not unkind.)

Reference

You can read more about double negatives at the American Heritage Dictionary of English Usage.

Thank you, Marla, for the question and the examples!

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8 Responses to Double Negatives

  1. bill says:

    Thanks for the clear definition of the double negative. I intend not to be and infrequent visitor to your site!

  2. You are very welcome, Bill. Nice use of litotes in your comment!

  3. John F. Green says:

    Double negatives were in the literature of the 17th & 18th century quite popular and usually employed correctly (I can’t say that I am disinclined to believe the man) and can even be found in current usage (Nobody doesn’t like Sarah Lee). In order to preserve the richness and eloquence of our language I hate to see an arbitrary rule added which prohibits their proper use. I personally prefer to consider a double negative an error in logic rather than an error in grammar. I know that it is probably more difficult to teach youngsters to rigidly apply this rule of logic than simply promulgate a rule of grammar that prohibits double negatives but that is the way life is.

  4. John, I agree with you. I hope you didn’t get the impression that I advocated adding an arbitrary rule. The sentences you provide in your comment are excellent examples of litotes, which I refer to above. The only kind of double negative that I recommend avoiding are those that, as you put it, show an error in logic — and only then for social rather than grammatical reasons.

  5. Bob says:

    Double negatives are fairly prominent as stylistic devices in academic articles – phrases such as “not unlike” are often used for variety, and perhaps to create a less formal tone.

  6. Benjamin says:

    As a stylistic device i don’t think the un-use of a double negative can’t be not used. In fact i believe multi-negative sentances, used with a particular intention (such as to prove a point, or as an artistic device.), can be very valuable.

  7. Alastair says:

    Yes, as valuable as correct punctuation inside of brackets can be. In my experiences, double negatives are only used in Northern America. No English (not Am. Eng.) speaking part of the world cripples speech or writing with them.

  8. Ryan Cook says:

    I don’t think it’s helpful to involve litotes in the issue of double negatives because the problem of the double negative in English is a problem of logic, whereas there is no logical confusion in the case of litotes… and no one is objecting to the use of litotes anyway. In fact, the latter is a rhetorical trope that will lend nothing but elegance and sophistication to one’s speech/prose. These are two separate issues. The proscription of double negatives in English is not even a matter of social convention, as far as I’m concerned. Rather, it is the permissibility of a phrase like “there ain’t no such and such” that is explained by convention, because we understand this not to involve a logical paradox by virtue of convention. In the case of a language like French, where the negative construction is most often formed by a “double negative” pairing (non pas, ne rien, etc.), there is also a linguistic convention that preempts the logical confusion of one negative ‘negating’ the other. Not so in the case of English. We do not say “there isn’t no” when we mean “there is no” because, for lack of convention dictating otherwise, logically “there isn’t no” means “there is.” In light of this, the problem of the double negative also cannot really be said to have a relationship to the hung versus hanged issue (I followed the link from there to here) because hung versus hanged is precisely a matter of convention, whereas double negatives are not.