Picture it: you are sitting in an English class and a teacher says “don’t use double negatives”. Double negative? What is a double negative? How can anything be negative twice?
What is a double negative?
A double negative in the content of language is when a sentence has multiple negative words. A negative word can be, for example, the words “no, not, no one, nothing”, etc. In English, most of these words start with an N.
Hold on: other languages have double or multiple negatives. Spanish and Slavic languages routinely negate anything possible in a negative sentence, French uses the ne … pas construction and Welsh negatives cause mutations that look like multiple negatives in a sentence. No matter what, these sentences are always negative.
So why does English not use multiple negatives? Well, the answer is a bit more complex than “it just doesn’t”.
History of double negatives
To answer this question completely, we need to look back at the history of the English language. Until relatively recently, English did use multiple negatives to mean a negative. Old English, Middle English and even Early Modern English (click the link for more information about how English evolved) used double negatives like the aforementioned languages. Take an element in a sentence, make it negative, go to the next and continue until all the elements are negative. The resulting sentence was still negative.
Fast forward to the Enlightenment era. Scholars, scientists and mathematicians are pushing the boundaries of science, philosophy and understanding in Europe and Europe-influenced regions. Someone then has the bright idea that language should follow mathematics. If two negatives make a positive in mathematics, why not in English as well?
Thus the double negative in English changed. The number of negatives now mattered. One negative meant something negative. Two negatives meant something positive. Three negatives meant something negative, etc.
So if you are looking for who to blame for this shift, blame linguists and mathematicians! At this point, they were often the same person.
Wait, so why does my teacher say not to use double negatives? They still exist right?
Double negatives are very much still a part of English today. However, they usually mean something different than what is meant in other languages.
When you want to make a negative sentence, you only need one negative word (e.g. nothing). Students will often try to use multiple negatives to create a negative sentence. Since this is tricky at best in English, it is easier to tell beginner and intermediate students not to use them.
For advanced students, there is a use for them. Double negatives in a sentence can be used to show a “lukewarm” reaction to something. For example:
A: Did you enjoy the party?
B: Well I didn’t not like it.Translation: it was ok.
Or look at this example:
A: If I paid for the holiday to Jamaica, would you come?
B: I wouldn’t go nowhere with you.Sounds very odd but it means “I would go anywhere with you” – but not heartfelt like the positive version
How to use double negatives today
While I hate using the word “Standard” to describe English (i.e. there is no such thing), the “Standard” English that is tested on exams like Cambridge, IELTS and TOEFL follow the rule that I said above. An odd number of negatives (1, 3, 5, etc) in a sentence means that the sentence is negative. An even number of negatives (2, 4, 6, etc) means the sentence is positive.
Is this always the case?
Short answer: no.
Long answer: still no. English does not have a standard version that is considered “the correct one”. There is no central body that controls the language (unlike French: Académie Française, Spanish: Real Academia Española, German: Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung). Instead, each dialect is allowed to grow and change naturally. This leads to a lot of variation.
One of those variations is how the double negatives are used. For example, you will hear the phrase “ain’t got no” in many Afro-Caribbean-influenced dialects, including African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in the US. In these dialects and situations, the meaning is negative. Another way of saying it is “I don’t have”. “Ain’t do no” also follows this pattern in some dialects. It means “I didn’t do”. There is also the double negative phrase that went viral:
Double negatives are also very common in songs. The Rolling Stones song I can’t get no satisfaction is the perfect example of this.
So how do I know if a double negative is negative or positive?
On a language exam, the answer is always that a double negative is positive.
Otherwise, a lot of it depends on the context, the speaker/writer, and their dialect. If you see that someone has children and uses a double negative referring to time (e.g. ain’t nobody got time for that), it is likely that they don’t have time, meaning it is still negative. If someone says “It is not that I don’t have time”, it means that they do have time, they just don’t want to give it to you (or waste it on you).
When you want to make a negative sentence, it is easiest to just use one negative word. It also sounds the most natural.
If you see/hear an even number of negatives, in some places it may still mean something negative. It depends on the context and the person saying/writing it.
Texts from a couple of hundred years ago may still be using the old system. In this case, all sentences with negatives are negative.
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