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Grammar myths #3: Don’t know nothing about double negatives? Read on…

Is there a specific grammatical slip that’s guaranteed to make you wince? I bet there is! While it’s hard to say why certain linguistic errors cause our hackles to rise rather than others, everyone has their own bête noire. You could split your infinitives till kingdom come and I wouldn’t bat an eyelid, but whenever I hear something like:

I don’t know nothing about computers.

OR

It won’t do you no good.

I cringe and have to restrain a nitpicking urge to say, ‘two negatives make a positive: do you really mean that you know something about computers?’. However, as a Rolling Stones fan, I don’t come over all grammatically correct about ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’. It’s completely illogical, I admit.

These are all examples of double negatives, which are regarded as non-standard usage in formal spoken and written English, but which are very common in informal speech, song lyrics, etc. Unlike the other issues I’ve so far explored in Oxford’s Myth Debunkers, however, this one is a little less cut and dried. There are two categories of double negative: one type is not considered good English, but the other is perfectly acceptable. So what follows isn’t a total debunking, more an exploration.

We don’t need no education…

Whether or not you concur with the sentiments expressed in Pink Floyd’s song, perhaps a brief run-through of what we mean by a negative wouldn’t go amiss?

There are three basic ways to express yourself: affirmative (saying that something is the case), negative, and interrogative (asking a question).

Affirmative Negative Interrogative
He likes pasta. He doesn’t like pasta. Does he like pasta?
She’s tired. She’s not tired. Is she tired?

Negative statements are those which express the opposite of an affirmative one, or which state that something is not true or not the case. How do we express negation in English? There are three main ways:

She’s not tired.

or attach the contraction (shortened form) of not, ‘n’t’, to a verb:

He doesn’t like pasta.

  • we can use a negative word, for example:
I could hear nothing at all.
We’ve never been to Germany.
Nobody would tell her the truth.
There was nowhere for kids to play.
Neither of them spoke Japanese.
  • we can add a negative prefix (such as dis-, un-, non-, and in-  ) to the start of an affirmative word to convert it into a negative one:
Affirmative Negative
common uncommon
honesty dishonesty
active inactive
infectious non-infectious

Doubling can mean trouble

Ok, so that’s the single negatives sorted. If you want to be grammatically safe rather than sorry, stick to those and you won’t go wrong. As mentioned above, there are two categories of double negative. Let’s deal with the one that’s considered ungrammatical first:

X  I don’t know nothing about computers.

Here, the speaker is using two negative words (the contraction n’t and nothing) to express a negative meaning and to emphasize that he or she doesn’t know anything about computers. This is unacceptable in standard English because the two negatives are considered to cancel each other out – as in maths and logic, two negatives are deemed to create a positive. The meaning of the sentence is therefore interpreted as being affirmative, and the opposite of what the speaker intended, that is: I know something about computers.

The correct way to express a negative meaning is to use a single negative word, as in either of the following versions:

√  I don’t know anything about computers.

√  I know nothing about computers.

A word of warning. There’s a small set of adverbs, including hardly, barely, scarcely, seldom, and rarely, which also behave as negatives, although at first sight they don’t look like them. Because these words are treated as negatives, they shouldn’t be used with another negative term in the same sentence or clause. The following are therefore more examples of incorrect double negatives:

He couldn’t hardly catch his breath.

This first satirical TV comedy made scarcely no impact.

The correct versions are:

  He could hardly catch his breath.

√  This first satirical TV comedy made scarcely any impact.

The perspective from the past and elsewhere…

Any linguists out there will be aware that in some languages (for example, Spanish, Portuguese, and French), double negatives are grammatically acceptable: rather than cancel each other out, they serve to strengthen the negative idea. Students of English language and literature will also know that, had you lived in England up to the 17th century, you’d also have been doubling your negatives with gay abandon and not incurring the wrath of the grammar police. The works of Chaucer and Shakespeare contain many examples of double and even multiple negatives:

Ther nas no man nowher so vertuous…       (Chaucer, ‘The Friar’s Tale’)

I never was nor never will be.                         (Shakespeare, Richard III)

After the 17th century, certain writers attempted to make English spelling and grammar more systematic, and relate the rules of language to those of logic. The Oxford English Dictionary records that in 1775, Lowth’s A Short Introduction to English Grammar stated:

Two Negatives in English destroy one another, or are equivalent to an Affirmative.

This edict had an impressive staying power and remains the case today. Double negatives, when used to express a negative idea, aren’t acceptable in standard English and you should avoid them in all but very informal situations (or when singing along to pop songs).

It’s not unusual….singing the praises of some double negatives

Here’s where things are less clear cut: there’s a second type of double negative that’s considered correct. In this category, two negatives are used in the same sentence or clause to express a positive idea rather than a negative one. For instance, in the sentence:

Blake was not unaware of his appearance.

the writer is using two negatives to say in a subtle and indirect way that Blake was in fact very aware of his appearance. This sort of double negative with a positive result is an aspect of the rhetorical technique known as litotes, in which deliberate understatement or denial is used to reinforce a statement. The double negative creates a nuance of meaning that would not be present had the writer just made an affirmative statement such as:

Blake was aware of his appearance.

Other rhetorically positive and grammatically acceptable examples are:

When I look back I don’t regret not going to school.

[meaning: I’m glad that I didn’t go to school]

We can’t just do nothing in the face of this mounting threat.

[meaning: we must take some action to combat this threat]

I couldn’t not help him.

[meaning: I strongly felt I should help him]

If you really fret about linguistic issues, this means that in some cases you can sing along to pop songs containing double negatives and stay on the grammatically acceptable side of the tracks, as in the 1965 hit It’s Not Unusual, recorded by the Welsh singer, Tom Jones. It’s a not inelegant way of expressing the fact that being in love is very usual indeed. Yay!