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The Story of the Double Negative


The Story of the Double Negative

The Story of the Double Negative

In this week’s episode of Everyday Grammar, we’re going to talk about two common types of double negatives. A double negative is when you use two negative words in the same clause of a sentence.

Let’s take a real-world example. In 2012, President Obama spoke at United Nations about the Iran nuclear issue.

“America wants to resolve this issue through diplomacy, and we believe that there is still time and space to do so. But that time is not unlimited.”

What did the president mean when he said “not unlimited?” Mr. Obama’s double negative statement confused many people.

English teachers do not like double negatives because they can be confusing and illogical. Starting in elementary school, teachers tell students to avoid them. But many native English speakers still use double negatives.

There are two types of double negatives.

The first kind of double negative is when two negative words form a positive statement. When President Obama said, “Time is not unlimited,” the negative “not” and the negative prefix “un” cancel each other out. What Mr. Obama meant is that time is limited for Iran. Politicians, lawyers and diplomats sometimes use this type of double negative in sensitive situations.

The second type of double negative is when two negatives form a stronger negative. For example, “I don’t know nothing.” When you place a verb between two negative words, the result is usually a stronger negative.

But, if you told an English teacher, “I don’t know nothing,” the teacher would probably correct you with, “I don’t know anything.” This kind of double negative is taboo in professional and academic situations. Some people see it as a sign of being poorly educated.

But English speakers have been using double negatives for centuries. The first English translation of the Bible by King James used double negatives. William Shakespeare even used a triple negative in his play Richard III. Shakespeare wrote, “I never was nor never will be.”

Was Shakespeare wrong?

Robert Lowth

Robert Lowth

It was Robert Lowth who decided the double negative had no place in English grammar. Robert Lowth was a leader in the Church of England. In 1762, he wrote a book called A Short Introduction to English Grammar. Mr. Lowth proposed many restrictions on English grammar, many of them inspired by Latin. Over the years, his rules became the standard for teaching grammar all over the English-speaking world.

But the double negative is alive and well, especially in informal speech. In fact, some of the richness of the English language comes from ignoring the rules. Listen for the double negative in the song “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones.

"I can’t get no satisfaction
I can’t get no satisfaction
‘Cause I try and I try…"

Would the song have the same effect if Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger had said, “I cannot get any satisfaction?”

And surely Robert Lowth would not approve of pop star Rihanna’s use of the double negative in her song called “Numb.”

“I don’t care, can’t tell me nothing ...”

The double negative is just one example of the difference between how English is taught in school and how it is sometimes spoken.

So next time you get frustrated with English grammar, don’t blame your teacher. Blame Robert Lowth.

I’m Jonathan Evans.

Adam Brock wrote and produced this story for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

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Reference

Double Negative Type 1:

Negative + negative = weak positive

Examples:

She is not incorrect. (She IS correct)

The plan is not without risk. (The plan HAS risk)

Time is not unlimited. (Time IS limited)

TIP: This type of negative is grammatically acceptable, but should be avoided. It is used when the speakers want to be indirect and avoid offending someone.

Double Negative Type 2:

Negative + verb + negative = strong negative

Examples:

I haven’t seen nobody. (I haven’t seen anybody.)

I can’t get no satisfaction. (I can’t get any satisfaction.)

Don’t tell me nothing. (Don’t tell me anything.)

TIP: This type of double negative is sometimes used in informal spoken English. One should avoid using it in academic and professional situations —especially in TOEFL, IELTS, college or job application letters.

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Words in This Story

double negative n. a grammatical construction in which two negative words are used in the same clause to express a single negation.

clausen. a part of a sentence that has its own subject and verb

illogicaladj. not showing good judgment : not thinking about things in a reasonable or sensible way : not logical

taboon. not acceptable to do

William Shakespearen. English poet, playwright, and actor, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language.

propose v. to suggest (something, such as a plan or theory) to a person or group of people to consider

inspire v. having a particular cause or influence

informaladj. relaxed in tone : not suited for serious or official speech and writing

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