GRAMMAR - Double Negatives

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GRAMMAR - Double Negatives

Post  Vincent Law on Sat Nov 24, 2012 12:12 pm

REMINDER: A double negative is the nonstandard usage of two negatives used in the same sentence so that they cancel each other and create a positive. In Shakespeare's day, double negatives were considered emphatic, but today, they are considered grammar mistakes.

On the Stan Freberg Show, Stan sang Ol' Man River with a censor interrupting every few seconds. When Stan sang, "He don't know nothin'," the censor asked, "Do you mean 'he does know something'?" So Stan apologized and changed the song to say, "He doesn't know anything." "Don't know nothin'" is a double negative. In logic, a double negative becomes a positive, with "not not . . ." the two nots cancel and we have a positive. I have heard intelligent people claim that it is never right to use a double negative in grammar. Of course they are wrong.

The little kid's favorite word "antidisestablishmentarianism" is not a word we tend to use in a sentence (except this kind of sentence), but it is a good and legal double negative. On the other hand, "Never say 'never'," is not a double negative; it just asks you not to say a certain word. Also, "No, I didn't say that," is also not a double negative.

"I cannot disagree with you," is good English, and is a double negative. Removing the double negative ("I agree with you") changes the meaning of the sentence, as the double negative is more tentative. Similar are, "I won't ask you not to do that," and "I am not unhappy," "I'm not sure that I didn't say that," and "I don't dislike him."

Triple negatives ("I cannot say that I cannot disagree with you."), quadruple negatives ("I cannot disagree with you when you say that you cannot disagree with me."), etc. are possible. But, whether there is a legitimate reason for using them or not, they are confusing, and may be taken to mean the exact opposite to what was meant.

Believe it or not, "without hardly" is a double negative, and should logically mean "with" instead of "without." I think it is a good example of a colloquial expression which means something different from what it says logically, much like "he don't know nothin'." We know what both of those expressions mean, even though the logical meanings are the opposite. In writing, we should only use expressions like these in order to add authenticity to spoken dialogue, as was done in Ol' Man River.

My grammar checker informs me that "not infinite" is a double negative, and that "finite" is correct. I guess that is right. But there may be a subtle difference between "the sum is not infinite" and "the sum is finite," maybe. Similarly, "not independent" is a double negative. But it does not really mean the same as "dependent." But, we should consider using the positive, in all of these situations.

A reader reminded me of the popular expression, "not unlike . . ." "Not without" is another popular double negative. "Don't go without me," is an example. It takes a different approach to get a similar meaning with a positive: "Make sure I get to go with you," or "I'm going with you."

Jim Loy
Vincent Law
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