Some dialects of English have a feature known as the “double negative”. In these dialects, a negative sentence can contain more than one negative word. For example, a speaker of such a dialect might say “I didn’t see nobody” to express that nobody was seen.
Double negatives are widely perceived to be bad grammar, and virtually all traditional grammar books contain a section condemning them. The same reason is given every time:
“In fact, two negatives make a positive”.
Grammar for Everyone
“In maths, we learn that two minuses make a plus. Logically, in language likewise, two negatives make a positive”.
Tarzan and Jane’s Guide To Grammar
Jane says: “But since I used a double negative, the sentence becomes positive”.
Grammar for Dummies
“if you combine [two negatives] by the logic of grammar, you’ve the opposite of what you intended – the positive instead of the negative”.
These claims are all false. If it were true that “the logic of grammar” required negatives to always cancel out, then double-negative dialects would not (in fact could not) exist. But they do exist. Therefore negatives don’t always have to cancel.
The authors making these claims know this too. They know that what they are saying is not true of English in general. In fact, the only reason this topic was included in their grammar books is because they know there are dialects of English where negatives do not cancel, and that really bothers them. If there was no variation, and all dialects accomplished negation in the same way, then there would be nothing for the grammarians to “warn” you about.
Their goal is not to teach you how language is, but to tell you how they think language should be. Some, like Grammar for Everyone and Grammar for Dummies, go as far as claiming that double negative contravene a basic logical principle of language or grammar. There is no evidence to support this idea. It really depends on which language you are talking about. Consider this sentence from Russian:
ya ne vidy-el nikovo
I neg see-past.masc no-one
Literally: I not saw no one
Actual meaning: ‘I did not see anyone’
If it were true that double negatives always have to cancel each other out, then that sentence would mean “I saw someone”. That’s not what it means though, because negatives don’t cancel in Russian, and there are languages all over the world with similar grammatical machinery.
I am pretty sure that even the most hardcore prescriptivist would not accuse all Russians of having bad grammar, nor would they argue that Russian is an illogical language because of its double negatives. If you can accept the idea that negation can vary between languages, just extend that acceptance to the idea that negation can also vary across dialects of a single language.
Some dialects of English operate on a double-negative principle, just like Russian. There isn’t any good reason to treat them as inherently wrong. Double negatives are a natural part of human language.
Still, you might wonder why some people use double negatives in the first place. What determines this? The short answer is “it’s an accident of history”. Double negatives come and go over generations (this is known as Jespersen’s Cycle in linguistics), and in earlier forms of English double negatives were considered the norm.
In Old English, there was an negative word ne that appeared in all negative sentences before the verb. There was also an optional negative noht which came after the verb. So for example in Old English ic secge meant I say, and the negative version of the sentence was ic ne secge (noht).
In Middle English, there was a period where that second negative word became obligatory. Both negatives were used together, and the same sentence was then I ne saye not. Gradually, ne became an optional element of the sentence, and then it disappeared entirely, so that in Early Modern English the same sentence was I say not. Today, many varieties of English use a similar single negative, although it’s more idiomatic to add in the auxiliary verb do and phrase it as I do not say.
English speakers, however, do not form a completely cohesive group. Changes that happen in one speech community don’t have to affect all the others. Double negative exists today in some dialects because they simply never left. For a variety of reasons, these dialects are unfairly regarded as substandard, and grammar books still perpetuate the myth that double negatives must always cancel and it’s bad if they don’t.
Despite this strong position taken against double negatives, the prescriptivists are not very good at identifying them or teaching people how to avoid them. Here’s what Teach Terrific Grammar, a book with a very misleading title, has to say:
To correct a double negative, drop one of the negative words. You may also change one of the negative words for a positive.
This is the entirety of Terrific Grammar‘s explanation, by the way. A similarly brief explanation appears in numerous other books. Although easy to read, it is completely useless. To see just how bad this advice is, let’s work through an example sentence from Terrific Grammar. Here is their original double negative:
I do not have no pet
The book offers two possible repairs for the sentence: I don’t have a pet and I have no pet. Let’s see if we can arrive at the same answers by following their advice. The first thing the book says to do is to drop a negative. OK, but there are two of them – how do I decide? I’ll try them both, starting with no in no pet.
*I do not have pet
The sentence isn’t just bad anymore, it’s completely ungrammatical (unless you’re looking for a campy Russian accent). In order for the book’s idea to work, you have to know which negative to drop. Readers are, unfortunately, not instructed on how to make this decision. It is not Terrific Grammar if it makes your sentences worse when you follow it. I’m demoting the book down to Great Grammar.
Let’s try dropping the other negative:
*?I do have no pet
The sentence is still awkward. Under the right circumstances, like if you were trying to really emphasize or agree with the fact that you don’t have a pet, this might sound normal. It sounds strange out of the blue. It would be more natural if you also drop the auxiliary verb do and just say I have no pet.
The advice offered by the book fails completely. No matter which negative you remove, you get worse sentences instead of improved ones. The authors really need to provide more information than “drop a negative” because more than that is going on. I’m now demoting Great Grammar down to Acceptable Grammar.
Let’s not lose hope. There is one other part to that advice: change a negative word into a positive one. Actually the book said we “may also” have to change a negative word into a positive one, strongly suggesting that the first step of removing a negative will work most of the time. As we just saw it may not work at all, so we’ll cross our fingers for the substitution strategy.
The task set for us then is to decide which positive words count as “equivalents” of which negative words. This is a lot harder than it sounds. For example, what would you say is the positive version of never? Would it be ever? Or would it be always? Here’s a harder one: what’s the positive equivalent of not?
Explaining and justifying which positive words are the “same” as which negative words is hard. You need to have some sophisticated knowledge about English semantics and pragmatics. Or rather, an author of a grammar books need to know these things, if he or she hopes to convey anything useful here. The students don’t need a lecture on the formal semantics, but would it be too much to ask for some simple discussion of this issue?
For example, you could take I don’t have no pet and turn it into either one of these sentences: I don’t have a pet or I don’t have the pet. They aren’t equivalent however. The phrase the pet is used only when the speaker and listener know which pet is being referred to; a pet is less specific. The one you pick depends on context. Something as simple as this, reminding readers that context matters in language, would have improved this book a lot. I’m downgrading it again to Mediocre Grammar.
The authors are essentially relying on reader intuition to fill in all the gaps in their explanations. There are a number of counter-examples to their claims about negation, and rather than addressing any of these problems, they’re just hoping the readers will recognize and mentally correct for those situations not covered in the book. What I don’t understand is this: if you’re just going to rely on what your readers already know then what’s the point of writing a book?
Let’s suppose though that none of this flawed and uncritical analysis of language bothers you, and you are going to do your damnedest to eliminate double negatives from your speech. In order to recognize and avoid a double negative, you need to know what counts as a negative word in the first place. Here’s a common set of examples from a few grammar books:
Nitty Gritty Grammar
“Some words are negative – they give a sense of “not” or “no” in a sentence. Common negative words are no, not, none, never, nothing, hardly, barely, scarcely. Avoid double negatives – using two negatives to say no.”
Grammar Without Grief
“neither, no, none, nohow, nowhere, nor, not, n’t, hardly, scarcely”
“no, not, nobody, never, hardly, nothing, scarcely”
There are three words that look like the odd ones out: hardly, barely, and scarcely. Do they really belong on this list? They are the only words that end in the adverbial suffix –ly and they are the only ones that don’t start with n. That’s suspicious.
More importantly, these words also differ in their semantics from everything else on the list. They do not have a meaning of “no” or “none”, contrary to what the grammar books claim. Consider the sentence The computer is working. Which of the following is the negation of that sentence?
(1) The computer is not working.
(2) The computer is hardly working.
(3) The computer is scarcely working.
(4) The computer is barely working.
The answer is obviously sentence (1). It can’t be (2), because if the computer is hardly working, it means the computer is working, which is the very thing we’re trying to negate. And the same for for sentences (3) and (4) – if something is scarcely or barely working, it is still working.
Despite this mistake, the grammar books are on to something. Words like scarcely and hardly certainly do feel “negative-like”. Speakers of most North American dialects will find the following two sentences ungrammatical:
*? The computer isn’t hardly working.
*? I can’t scarcely afford this.
This is curious: these words aren’t negative, so why do some people get the feeling that the above are double negatives?
The words hardly, scarcely, and barely are examples of a phenomenon in language known as polarity. “Polarity items” are words which only appear in certain contexts. A well studied example is the class of negative polarity items, which are words that can only appear in a negative context (you could probably guess that from the name). Two common examples of negative polarity items are any and every. We would say I haven’t any idea and I don’t ever go there but not *I have any idea or *I ever go there.
The presence of a negative word, in technical jargon, “licenses” the presence of negative polarity items (which my lazy typing fingers will call NPIs from now on). The reason that the sentence *I ever go there is ungrammatical is that ever is not licensed to appear. It’s only licensed in negative sentences, like I don’t ever go there.
Interestingly, there are ways to licence NPIs other than by using negative words. For instance, they are allowed to appear in questions without any negatives in them. You can ask: Have you had any experience as a linguist? Ever taken a phonetics class?
Another way to licence them is by expressing doubt, e.g. I doubt any student will pass that syntax exam. Regret similarly licenses NPIs: I regret ever registering for that seminar with Chomsky.
More important to our discussion, the words hardly and barely are also NPI licensers. They provide a negative-like environment for NPIs to show up. When a sentence of Standard English contains one of those words, the grammar calls for the use of a negative polarity item instead of a negative. That’s why Standard English speakers say hardly anyone was there instead of *hardly nobody was there.
The double negative dialects, on the other hand, do not use negative polarity items. Instead, the grammar of those dialects calls for the continued use of negative words. No need to change them for a completely different set of polarity items.
For this reason, double negation is often called “negative concord” in linguistics. Personally I like the term “concord” because it gets across the idea that the negatives all appear together, on purpose, in agreement, rather than the term “double negative” which insinuates some level of redundancy. Having two terms “polarity” and “concord” properly presents them as normal linguistic expressions of negation. I don’t ever hear people call standard English “single negation”. It’s just assumed to be the norm, and having a special term for double negation presents it, incorrectly, as a deviation.
There are other kinds of polarity items too. English also has positive polarity items (PPIs), which, I’m sure you guessed, only appear in positive sentences. One example of this is somewhat.
We enjoyed the wedding somewhat.
?* We didn’t enjoy the wedding somewhat.
Here’s an interesting thought: if double negatives really make a sentence positive then it should be grammatical to stick a positive polarity item into a double negative. Something like this:
** You don’t need no sugar somewhat.
Personally, I find that sentence ungrammatical, bordering on nonsensical. I’d never say that, and I’d draw a blank if someone said that to me. However, your mileage may vary. We don’t all have the exact same system of language in our minds, and it could be that the way you acquired language gave you a mental grammar which can interpret that sentence perfectly.
So, given all this, is it OK to use double negatives? Well, that’s not quite the right way to approach this. A proper understanding of grammar doesn’t mean learning what you should or should not do. It’s learning what people actually do. It turns out that double negatives abound. Pretty much every English speaker already uses them, either because they want the negatives to cancel in a polarity dialect, or because the negatives won’t cancel in a concord dialect.
Our efforts in teaching grammar should not be wasted on trying to fix something that’s not a problem, and double negatives aren’t a problem. The goal of a good grammar book should be to explain how negation is accomplished in different dialects, not to pick sides in a made-up conflict. It’s time and abandon the idea that two negatives bad, one negative good.