I Can’t Not Write This

Posted on Tuesday, July 17, 2018, at 11:00 pm

Did something like this happen to you back in grade school? Some little miscreant is reprimanded by the teacher, whereupon the kid protests: “I didn’t do nothin’!” And faster than you can say “teachable moment,” the teacher says, “Now, Billy, you mean you didn’t do anything. When you say you didn’t do nothing, that means you did do something.”

I didn’t do nothin’ is called a “double negative” because of the not in didn’t and the no in nothin’. The teacher’s point is that two negatives cancel each other out, making the statement positive. Double negatives are often Exhibit A whenever this country’s language skills are deplored by the pure and righteous.

I never doubted that double negatives were wrong, but I strongly doubted whether anyone in that classroom, including the teacher, actually thought Billy was saying, “I did do something.”

Back in the sixties when Bob Dylan sang, “Ain’t no use to sit and wonder why,” I bet not a single listener, no matter how medicated, took it to mean, “There is some use to sit and wonder why.” No, we always know when we hear such statements that the two negatives are used for emphasis.

Almost a century ago, America thrilled to the showmanship of pop megastar Al Jolson, who often pumped up the crowd with “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” But we can go a lot further back than that. In the fourteenth century, Chaucer used double negatives in his epic poem, The Canterbury Tales. Two centuries later, Shakespeare said in one of his greatest love sonnets, “If this be error and upon me prov’d / I never writ nor no man ever loved.” Today we’d insist upon “nor any man ever loved.”

Double negatives pop up frequently in the Bard’s poems and plays. That’s because in those days, they were an entirely acceptable way of being emphatic. But sometime after the appearance in the seventeenth century of the first major English dictionaries, double negatives started falling out of favor.

Yet these same double negatives are standard usage in Greek, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, the list goes on. The direct translation of Yo no hice nada from Spanish to English is I did not do nothing, and no Spanish grammarian would have the slightest problem with it.

But that’s Spanish; the use of two negatives to state a negative is taboo in standard English. However, there are other types of double negatives we use all the time. Consider “You can’t not admire such a person.” It takes an extra moment to figure out what it means, but endorsements don’t come stronger than that.

—Tom Stern

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