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When Two Negatives Don’t Make a Positive

I_wont_not_use_no_double_negatives

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Many English grammar advice sites on the web are so dire that it almost seems rude to link to them. I don’t want to fail in my duty to clarify things by deconstructing them; yet it seems cruel to humiliate the poor well-meaning people who wrote them. So let me just say that somewhere out there is a dreadful page of confused drivel on a website maintained by a world-famous dictionary publisher, and its author begins by confessing a prejudice:

Whenever I hear something like I don’t know nothing about computers … 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.

My heart aches when I see an opening like this to a page about the so-called “double negative” — it’s a familiar topic in usage handbooks, but one that I will argue should be ditched.

The writer is confusing two different language systems, and no conflict with logic arises in connection with either of them. It’ll be useful to color-code the two language systems in what follows. When I give an example in Standard English, I’ll use green type, and for certain nonstandard dialects of English I’ll use red.

In Standard English, [1] is is synonymous with both [2a] and [2b].

[1] I don’t know nothing about computers.
[2] a. It isn’t true that I know nothing about computers.
b. I know something about computers.

Both [1] and [2a] could reasonably be described as doubly negated. But the two negations have canceled each other to make the meaning the same as [2b]. And if [2b] is true then the two synonymous negative versions in [3] are false.

[3] a. I know nothing about computers.
b. I don’t know anything about computers.

—which means the doubly-negated [1] is true.

Now, in other languages, like Italian and Polish, the syntax of negation is different. It features something called negative concord, which requires multiple marking of a single negation. Thus the Standard Italian translation of [3a] is: Non so nulla di computer. The negation is marked twice, by non and by nulla. But this is not a double negative. It’s a single negative, indicated twice in the morphology (the structure of the words) because that’s what the syntax requires.

Various dialects of English over the past 700 years (at least since Chaucer) have exhibited the same feature. And they are not extinct; I happened to mention one here a couple of weeks ago. In these dialects, the translation of the Italian Non so nulla di computer is I don’t know nothing about computers. It looks like [1], but it’s actually in a (slightly) different language with a different grammar.

Warning someone against using this construction when writing Standard English is really just advising them to use Standard English rather than Italian or anything else. And that’s hardly necessary.

You certainly should write in Standard English if you are writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education. But not if you’re writing a song for the Rolling Stones, whose songwriting role models have always (for more than 50 years) been African-American blues artists from the Southern U.S.A., native speakers of negative concord dialects. But hardly anyone needs to have this pointed out to them! I have seen some bad writing in my time, but I do not recall ever encountering anyone who wrote The tests didn’t find no contamination under the misapprehension that they were stating in Standard English that the tests found no contamination.

The web page I mentioned above (to which I studiously avoid linking), having completely missed the point concerning negative concord, then wanders on to mention various unremarkable Standard English constructions: not with adjectives that have the negative prefix un- (see “Orwell and the Not Unblack Dog” for a Lingua Franca post about a spurious criticism of that construction), and genuine cases of sentences with two semantically significant negations that cancel each other out: We can’t just not attend; It seemed impossible that it would not succeed; Nobody could be unaware of it; and so on. None of these raise any controversies at all; usage guides shouldn’t even mention them. And rolling them together with discussion of the negative concord dialects is worse than pointless. I wish usage-advice books and websites would stop doing it.

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