Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Double negatives

with 16 comments

Double negatives drive some people to distraction. Here are a few examples:

Wizard of Oz (1925 film)

“Nobody sees the Wizard! Not nobody, not nohow!”

  • I don’t know nothing.
  • He doesn’t want nothing.
  • They’re not doing nothing for me.
  • She said she didn’t have nothing to say.
  • It didn’t come as no surprise to me.

Double negatives cause some people palpitations because, strictly speaking, they mean the exact opposite of what is intended.

However, after noting that double negatives of this type should obviously be avoided when speaking formally and in all but the most casual writing, we can then get off our grammatical high horses and relax a little. Using double negatives is not, at least when I last checked, a treasonable offence. As the Oxford Dictionary of English (ODE) notes:

In practice this sort of double negative is widespread in dialect and other non-standard English and rarely gives rise to confusion as to the intended meaning.

The ODE also notes that double negatives are standard in some other languages such as Spanish, and were normal in Old English and Middle English.

Correct use of the double negative

A further interesting point (and another important reason to get off our high horses) is that double negatives can be used judiciously in all types of writing and speaking to add subtlety. Compare, for example, the following two statements:

  • I was not unimpressed with his performance.
  • I was impressed with his performance.

The first statement is at face value a simple double negative having the same meaning as the second statement. However, the effect is subtler: the first statement implies an all-important ‘but…’. In other words, the speaker is politely communicating that they have reservations.

More from Oxford Dictionaries on double negatives

Accents and dialects

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16 Responses

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  1. When Dorothy and the companions first ask at the great hall for an audience with the Wizard of Oz, the gatekeeper replies emphatically, “Nobody sees the Wizard! Not nobody, not nohow!”

    Thank you, Deborah. Correct usage due to the implied “but” is subtle.

    Invisible Mikey

    15/05/2010 at 6:49 am

    • Hi, Mikey — how lovely to invoke the Wizard of Oz! Wish I’d thought of that myself. Thank you, and I’m glad you liked the post.

      Deborah

      15/05/2010 at 2:40 pm

  2. Morning Deborah,

    I’d be inclined to take issue with the ODE on this one – it’s not ALL dialects, or even all speakers within a dialect.

    Having backpacked over most of the rural areas of England, back when I was fit, I’ve encountered most regional dialects over the years. I think double negatives, and other linguistic manglings are a feature of those who speak English poorly, regardless of dialect.

    A Cumbrian hill farmer, for example, is quite likely to speak more correct English than scallies in Kendal (it’s always a mistake to view farmers as straw-chewing yokels). In the former case, though, the language is more likely to be studded with words and phrases that are incomprehensible to, say, the day-tripper.

    Asking for camping permission is likely to get a “Nay, lad, wi tuppin'”. (No, sorry, the rams are among the ewes at this time of year,” or “Oh, aye, twatters int shippon,”. (Of course, and the water tap’s in the cow shed.) In my experience, you’d rarely get a double negative.

    I can’t say the same for Scouse, having lived and worked in Liverpool for many years – it’s littered with double negatives, and other crimes against language, not so much a dialect as just a sloppy way of speaking. No matter how much Fritz Lieber would like us to think otherwise.

    No matter what the region, there is usually a direct link with the level of education, and literacy, and poorly-spoken English.

    Ron

    15/05/2010 at 9:30 am

    • Hi, Ron — thank you for those excellent examples of dialect. I especially like ‘Nay, lad wi tuppin’.

      I’m not so sure about the link between education, literacy and poorly spoken English (or even if it’s right to refer to it as ‘poorly spoken English’). Very often, people who come from, for example, a poorly educated working class background can in later life become highly literate, but revert to speaking in an ‘illiterate’ way when visiting their old stamping grounds. Or, people may speak in ‘poor English’ but not when it is inappropriate to do so; and such people may also be highly educated and literate. I think it’s a very complex area. Many thanks for your interesting comments.

      Deborah

      15/05/2010 at 2:56 pm

  3. Hi Deborah, I agree with your comment about how interchangeable people’s language can be, depending on their immediate environment. I have a friend from a poor, rural background who is now a highly educated professional. He is articulate and well-spoken, so imagine my surprise when I heard him at a party speaking to a childhood friend, and saying things like, “It’s broke.” and “She done good.” and “I didn’t know nothin’ about it.”

    Jo-Anne

    15/05/2010 at 10:21 pm

    • Hi, Jo-Anne — yes, I find this whole area so interesting. Not least the way in which people can be judged and pigeonholed because of the way they speak and express themselves.

      Deborah

      16/05/2010 at 9:57 am

  4. Your penultimate example — “not unimpressed” — is called litotes (rhetorical understatement through use of a negative).

    Michael Farrell

    16/05/2010 at 3:43 am

  5. Thanks for your original comments on double negatives, Deborah. I hope you will market it as wall-paper with non-removable adhesive, that may be pasted on the walls over every room (= every room) in the homes of the stiff-as-a-ramrod, grey, soulless, algebraic pedants who so often try to rule the waves in the more intelligent parts of facebook.
    I,too, have travelled widely throughout Britain, and find Ron’s comments are true only as in so far as the avoidance of double negatives is far more prevalent among the Hyacinth Buckets of this world, male and female.
    There are millions of people in Britain, like many of my friends (including a fair number of farmers) in Wales and England, who are intelligent, sensitive, witty and kind, but articulate their thought in a way which Ron would regard as “poorly-spoken English”. I won’t have no truck with linguistic puritanism.

    Dai

    16/05/2010 at 1:49 pm

    • Hello, Dai — I’m going to get out the bunting: I think this is the first time you have ever agreed with me! (I had to read your comment twice to make sure.) Grammatical wallpaper is a good idea — I might suggest it to the new chancellor George Osborne. I think he probably knows more about wallpaper than he does about fiscal matters.

      Deborah

      16/05/2010 at 2:23 pm

  6. From the After Deadline column in The New York Times:

    Mr. de Maiziere could not even rule out for certain that a German agency was not behind the episode. “I consider that highly unlikely, but that is one of the things we are looking into,” he said

    This convoluted double negative didn’t say what we meant.

    Deborah

    09/03/2011 at 8:31 am

    • It’s convoluted and could be said more simply, but I don’t think it’s a double negative.

      Michael Farrell

      10/03/2011 at 7:14 am

      • Hi, Michael — thank you. I suppose the reference is to the repetition of ‘not’ (highlighted in bold below). Removal of the second one would convey the correct meaning:

        Mr. de Maiziere could not even rule out for certain that a German agency was not behind the episode. “I consider that highly unlikely, but that is one of the things we are looking into,” he said

        Of course, the whole sentence could be improved (pre-intravenous tea attempt):

        Mr de Maiziere could not rule out the involvement of a German agency.

        Deborah

        10/03/2011 at 7:43 am

        • I’d have some tea. He’s saying that it’s possible a German agency was behind the epi. Or answering the question, “Can you rule out whether or not a GA is behind the epi?” In any event, it’s not a double negative–as your initial examples show.

          Michael Farrell

          10/03/2011 at 2:50 pm

          • For unrelated reasons, I could not drink no more tea today than what I have already drunken.

            Um, can you rule out a ‘whether or not’? That would be clearer as ‘Can you rule out that a German agency …’. But either way, that’s a very generous interpretation of the sentence as published in The New York Times.

            I’m not sure why this can’t be classed as a double negative? Oxford Dictionaries describes a double negative as, ‘a negative statement containing two negative elements’. The repetition of ‘not’ seems to have that covered? The rule says that the two negatives must cancel each other out and make a positive. So the above sentence would become:

            Mr. de Maiziere could not even rule out for certain that a German agency was not behind the episode.

            Which as The New York Times admitted, is not what it meant to say.

            Deborah

            10/03/2011 at 6:01 pm

            • We are now flogging horsemeat tartar, but, as my last comment, I still disagree. A double negative is usually a pejorative, not merely two uses of a negative. It’s usually either the sort of illiterate examples you cite above, in your original post, or some form of litotes, like “not unwanted attention.”

              Michael Farrell

              11/03/2011 at 12:30 am


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