It has now been just shy of two years since I last posted in this series. Time for a resurrection, I think, and what better topic than Double Negatives?
Usage rules regarding Double Negatives are a fine example of English grammar gone crazy. Most English speakers declare double negatives to be incorrect speech, but much of the rest of the world uses them freely. Most Latinate languages (French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian) use the double negative to add emphasis. Some languages (including colloquial English) can even go so far as to use triple and quadruple negatives (or more). In many of these cases, the excessive negative is used to emphasize the original expression.
In general, English speakers are advised to not use the double negative because of the idea (usually false idea, I might add) that two negatives make a positive. In math, that may well be true, but it is not often the case in language.
The idea that two negatives makes a positive was first introduced in 1762 by Robert Lowth. In certain cases, this actually makes a little sense, but not often. For example: I don’t disagree. Using Lowth’s ideas, this phrase can be correctly translated as “I agree.” But there is something very special about using the double negative in this case. The speaker isn’t necessarily saying that they agree, but they are implying something about the level of agreement they do feel. Specifically, the speaker is saying that they have multiple feelings both in favor and opposed to whatever might be in discussion. They don’t necessarily agree, but they don’t disagree either. In this case, the double negative is useful because it carries an extended meaning beyond the simple concept of agreement. However, note that the double negative does not make the statement “I don’t disagree” positive. It makes it more neutral or even slightly negative.
There are many examples of double negatives not equaling positives in colloquial speech. The phrase “ain’t got nobody” surely does not mean that the speaker has somebody. Rather, the double negative serves to emphasis the fact that the speaker is alone. Similarly, the word pairing of “neither/nor” is not a positive combination. If you said, “Neither the sun nor the moon shone on me,” you certainly would not be saying that they had. And you also couldn’t replace neither/nor with the positive expressions either/or because you would completely change the meaning of the sentence (Either the sun or the moon shone on me.).
So, does the double negative ever equal a positive? Yes. Yes, it does. A good example is the phrase “I hardly have none.” In this case, “hardly” and “none” do cancel each other out and leave us with the idea that the speaker does have something. More particularly, the use of “hardly” implies that the speaker has much. Compare that to the phrase “I hardly have any,” and you see quite clearly how the double negative differs from the single negative. Additionally, the manner in which the phrase “I hardly have none” is spoken would be essential to understanding. A sarcastic tone would indicate that the speaker has something while a pitiful, sorrowful tone could indicate the exact opposite.
Should you use the double negative? If you want my opinion, yes. The double negative serves some very valuable purposes. However, you do need to be careful because the double negative is a shibboleth for some people. At the same time, don’t sacrifice meaning for correctness. The point of communicating is to transfer meaning from one person to another, and if you sacrifice your ability to actually pass information in favor of being “correct,” you’ve prostituted your message to arbitrary laws and rules.
For some practice, here are nine sentences I found online that all use the double negative. Try your hand at removing the double negative without changing the meaning of the sentence. There is one sentence that cannot be changed without changing the meaning. I’ve bolded all the negatives for you since some are a touch obscure. My answers are below. (Note: Many of these sentences are incorrect.)
1. I think the new financial initiative will not last barely a month.
2. The researcher decided not to run the test again because the results from previous tests were hardly reliable.
3. Since his last speech gained little acceptance, the writer has not had no request to visit the forum again.
4. The explorers finally discovered that the place where they landed did not have none of the minerals they wanted.
5. The pilot could not find nowhere to land.
6. After being replaced, the pipes did not run no water as expected.
7. Arizona had scarcely no rain last summer.
8. The storm rose so quickly that the road crews could not do nothing about clearing the highways.
9. There is hardly no worse challenge than the one concerning national defense.
Some possible answers, with my comments, where needed, in italics:
1. I think the new financial initiative will not last a month. (You could also go with, “I think the new financial initiative will last barely a month,” but notice how that is distinctly different than first solution.)
2. The researcher decided not to run the test again because the results from previous tests were hardly reliable. (I found no way to edit this sentence without changing the meaning. In this case, the double negative is well worth the use to maintain accuracy of speech. You could, of course, also argue that you really have two complete ideas here that each carry their own negative. That analysis would be valid, although I have seen a few grammar-nazis who would whine over the fact that this sentence does have two negatives. Ignore them.)
3. Since his last speech gained little acceptance, the writer has not had any requests to visit the forum again.
4. The explorers finally discovered that the place where they landed did not have any of the minerals they wanted.
5. The pilot could not find anywhere to land.
6. After being replaced, the pipes did not run water as expected.
7. Arizona had scarcely any rain last summer.
8. The storm rose so quickly that the road crews could not do anything about clearing the highways.
9. There is hardly a worse challenge than the one concerning national defense. (The original sentence is one that I would not necessarily consider incorrect, but that I would edit because most people would call that incorrect.)