When Mick Jagger sings that he ‘can’t get no satisfaction’, there’s no confusion over what he means – we know he’s not saying he can get some satisfaction. In a different context, ‘can’t get any satisfaction’ might be better, but we give singers poetic licence when it comes to grammar. We should, anyway. But we don’t always make the same allowances for people who use double negatives in their everyday speech. Note that multiple negation is a better name, since there are sometimes three or more negatives, but double negative is the more established term.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage reports Otto Jespersen’s observation that because negation in English has often been marked subtly – ‘by no more than an unstressed particle like old ne or modern -n’t’ – speakers have long tended to reinforce it with additional negation. So the double negative is a feature of many dialects, and indeed was once common even in the literary English of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Defoe. But that was before it gained a bad reputation, the result more of social than of grammatical pressures. Multiple negation remains common in other languages.
In a recent post on the different interpretations of the word grammar, I said that grammar rules are ‘not imposed top-down from logic, Latin, or some higher ideal’. This is where the trouble with double negatives arose. Multiple negation, normal since Old English, drew prejudicial attention from 18th-century prescriptivist grammarians like Robert Lowth and Lindley Murray. They did not accept the emphatic use of double negatives in English, declaring instead that they cancelled each other out or amounted to an affirmative – as they do in Latin, a language idealised at the time.
Condemnation from these influential grammarians, followed by the same from generations of schoolteachers, pushed the usage firmly down the rank of acceptability. This is why it’s considered unacceptable in standard English today and stigmatised in those parts of society concerned with being ‘proper’. Children are taught to drop it from their speech, so it becomes a shibboleth for identifying uneducated speakers, or for marking rustic or regional speech or affecting a demotic demeanour. But the rule about multiple negation in English applies only in formal registers – if it’s part of your dialect, there’s no reason to avoid it except in contexts where standard English would be more appropriate.
There are other kinds of double negative, such as ‘can’t hardly’ and ‘not unlikely’ (the second of these is an example of litotes), but I’ll look at those in a separate post. Otherwise I ain’t never gonna finish this one.Email this Post