I Can’t Not Write This

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 heard 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

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

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8 Comments on I Can’t Not Write This

8 responses to “I Can’t Not Write This”

  1. David A Sarro says:

    “Teachable moment”? Really? How about “teaching moment”?

  2. Chris says:

    Tom misread that line of Shakespeare. The line is best read today “If this be error and that is proved, then I never wrote, and no man ever loved.” It’s not a double negative.

  3. Lynette K Gough says:

    I want to know about another rule. I was about to write “goals and aspirations,” but a goal is an aspiration. However, why can’t people use a word that means the same thing as the first word? Why is that so frowned upon? Why can’t it be a form of repetition, using the same meaning over and over again? I can talk about how an aspiration is a goal, but I can’t use them in the same sentence without saying an aspiration is a goal. I wouldn’t be able to say a sweater is lavender and purple or red and crimson, but what if I wanted to emphasize the amount of red or amount of purple? Since I teach the rule in class, I want to know why I have to say that.

    • Avoiding redundancy is more guidance than rule. Sometimes we can be intentionally redundant for emphasis, but sometimes it can happen mindlessly, as we point out in Pleonasms Are a Bit Much. We expanded on this topic last year in Striking the Surplus from Tautologies, where we noted that certain redundancies will “never be fully edited from spoken language simply because of inherent informality.” More specifically, many would argue that writing “goals and aspirations” is not repetition.

  4. Harry S. says:

    What is the correct answer to a question “Is it not true that you were in the vehicle?”

    If you respond with YES, then in my opinion that means “YES it is not true, and I was in fact NOT in the vehicle.”
    Yet it seems most respond with NO, which can be interpreted as “No it’s true, and I was actually in the vehicle.”
    What is the correct response if you were NOT in the vehicle?

    • If we were asked this question, and we had NOT been in the vehicle, we would respond “It is true that we were not in the vehicle” or “What is
      true is that we were not in the vehicle.”

      If we had been in the vehicle, we would answer “To the contrary, it is true that we were in the vehicle.”

      We believe this construct is a rhetorical device with subtle (even manipulative?) word play that aims to force the issue of truth or lack
      thereof by posing as a question and including “not.” In a trial, for example, perhaps some attorneys believe it can work subliminally on a jurist’s mind.

      Thank you for your thought-provoking inquiry. We will consider this topic for a future newsletter article.

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