The Vagaries of Double Negatives

The Vagaries of Double Negatives

By Barry Willis

As all high school graduates know—or are supposed to know—in modern English, double negatives are considered at best improper and at worst, indicative of semi-literacy. “I don’t have none” is an ungrammatical response to a question such as “Do you have any money?” Even more ungrammatical are “stacked” negative elements, such as “I don’t have none never.”

Centuries ago, the use of double or stacked negatives was commonplace in English, but their use fell out of fashion thanks to insistence by grammarians trained in logic. Their argument was that two negative elements cancelled each other, so that “I don’t have none” should be interpreted as “I have some.” Stacked negative elements can be found in documents dating from Shakespeare’s time and later, but their use was never widespread in English. In some modern languages, such as Russian, double and stacked negatives are considered proper, reinforcing rather than cancelling each other, a different kind of linguistic logic. “Ya nichivo nikogda ni znal” (literally, “I nothing never not knew”) translates as “I never knew anything.”

The unassailable reasoning behind abandoning them in English succeeded. For many generations teachers have campaigned for clarity in the matter—a campaign that largely succeeded. We rarely ever hear or read them, unless they are lines spoken by semi-educated thugs in crime dramas.

Yet double negatives persist in more subtle ways, and are used all the time by very well-educated people to express degrees of emotion or acceptance. After having her house painted, a neighbor may comment “I was not unhappy with the result”—the two negative elements “not” and “un” combining (and mutually cancelling, as grammarians insist) to convey the idea that while she wasn’t overjoyed, she wasn’t disappointed either. “Not unhappy” gets close to the borderline of “happy” while not crossing it. 

This subtle double negative technique can be used in multiple ways to express nuances that more straightforward syntax cannot. A sportscaster might humorously describe a massive Sumo wrestler as “not underfed,” a much cleverer description than simply “well fed.” A political commentator may do something similar with a line such as “The upcoming election is not unlikely to be settled in the courts,” indicating a smaller degree of probability than “likely to be settled.” And “likely” is only one of many potential adjectives that might be inserted in that statement to raise or lower its stakes: “ . . . certain to be settled . . .” is much more definite. 

Knowing when and how to use such double negatives can add subtlety to your writing. Don’t be unwilling to try! 

As an aspiring writer, you’re probably aware that there are precious few linguistic or grammatical jokes. The double-negative issue is a rarity. In this case, the setup is a freshman linguistics class where the professor is lecturing about the foregoing topic. “In some languages, such as English,” he intones, “Negative elements negate each other. In others, they act as reinforcement, but as far as we know, there are no cases where positive elements negate each other.”

To which the class clown responds: “Yeah, right.”

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