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
Interesting! So English ‘banned’ double negatives because of Latin, yet many Latin-based languages (including Romanian, my mother tongue) have retained them.
As you say, Alina, this is normal in many Romance languages – including Spanish. There’s a lovely pile-up of multiple negatives in Ian Dury’s song “Clever Trevor”, which you can see here.
Thanks for the entertaining song, Michael. Wow, a prescriptivist would have a heart attack probably. 🙂
Very true, Alina. My own west-of-Ireland dialect doesn’t make use of ‘classic’ double negatives, but I wish they were more available in English for emphasis and effect. The language has not been enriched by their rejection.
I like that song, Michael! I hadn’t heard it before. It would be fun to play it for a staunch prescriptivist, as Alina mischievously suggests.
:)) Glad you liked the idea, Stan.
I think that double negatives work well for emphasis. What about double positives? Speaking of which, I couldn’t help but remember the joke below:
An MIT linguistics professor was lecturing his class the other day. “In English,” he said, “a double negative forms a positive. However, in some languages, such as Russian, a double negative remains a negative. But there isn’t a single language, not one, in which a double positive can express a negative.”
A voice from the back of the room piped up, “Yeah, right.”
It’s a good joke! I’ve also seen it in cartoon form.
Thanks, Stan! Love the cartoon!
I’ve been seeing multiple negation everywhere this week. It cropped up in a book I just finished, a police procedural by Ed McBain, and there are some striking examples in the one I’m reading today, David Sedaris’s When You Are Engulfed in Flames. For example, in the story The Understudy:
“First rule is that nobody touches nothing,” Mrs. Peacock said. “Not nobody and not for no reason.”
[…] Ain’t nothin’ (grammatically) wrong with no double negatives addresses this perennial point of controversy, looking over the usage’s long history in different varieties of English and how it came to be ostracised from reputable use: […]
There are excellent reasons for accepting and welcoming agreed rules in almost any walk of life. They help us to understand one another better and to get along with each other better.
It makes complete sense for present day English speakers and writers to accept that double negatives do make a positive. It makes sense because it accords with already very well established mathematical and logical rules The alternative is that no one understand what anyone else really means and they will argue about it forever, Given those two choices, why would anyone deliberately choose to perpetuate misunderstanding and strife? Maybe if they actually don’t want to understand other people or get along with them.
I dispute that “multiple negation is a better name, since there are sometimes three or more negatives, but double negative is the more established term.”
Sorry, but it is not connected with being “more established”. It is about what the terms actually mean and they are not synonymous.
Firstly, I would suggest that “Multiple” never means as few as the very specific, low number, two.
Secondly, again in accordance with established mathematical and logic rules, the number of negatives is critical to the result. Even numbers, 2, 4, 6 etc result in a positive. Odd numbers, 1,3,5 etc result in a negative. It’s a very simple rule that most people can understand. Using it removes confusion and any need for argument. This might disappoint some people.
Indeed there are good reasons for ‘accepting and welcoming agreed rules’ in different walks of life. But you ignore the fact that this means accepting different rules in different situations. When it comes to the English language, some of the rules vary with context – because the language itself does. English is not a uniform entity. It has many varieties, each of which has its own set of rules that are appropriate to it.
Most of these rules overlap, since English grammar is standardised to a large degree. But with some of the the rules, such as multiple negation, there is legitimate variation. Using multiple negation in conversation with someone whose dialect includes it as a normal, natural structure produces no ambiguity or confusion.
Despite what you believe, non-standard usage does no harm whatsoever. Part of the great appeal and strength of English is its richness and diversity. To seek to impose unnatural restrictions upon it through the misguided belief that it should be more like maths or formal logic is to do it a great disservice. A rigid approach to usage cannot be reconciled with what language is and how people use it.