Detaining the Double Negative

We recently reviewed how negative constructions both serve English expression and muddy it more than positive constructions will. Another aspect of English negation that deserves a closer look is the double negative.

To convey something is incorrect or untrue, English offers words such as no, not, nothing, barely, scarcely, and hardly, as well as terms with cancelling prefixes such as improbable and incomplete. In concise writing, we will use only one of these words to form a negative statement:

don’t have time for supper.
hardly remember that name.
They had nothing to say about the subject.

A double negative includes two of these words:

don’t have no time for supper.
can’t hardly remember that name.
They didn’t have nothing to say about the subject.

In certain contexts, the double negative can accommodate English by aiming to produce a positive thought or a less negative one, as in the following examples:

I guess it’s not impossible.
Not a year passes when she does not think of how they won the championship game.
It’s not that he didn’t like it. 

However, beyond being redundant and unclear, a double negative can suggest an absence of eloquence, as well as conviction. Consider the same preceding sentences without the double negative:

I guess it’s possible. Or, more succinctly, It’s possible.
Every year she thinks of how they won the championship game.
He thought it was so-so.

Interpreted more closely, a double negative also can turn a thought intended to negate into one that confirms:

don’t have no time for supper. (To not have no time for supper could mean “I do have time …”)
can’t hardly remember that name. (To not remember that name hardly could mean “I can remember …”)

As we put forth in our last article on the negative, using positive, more-direct language will almost always achieve more with less. Like a loose stitch in our quilt of expression, the double negative may still work its way into our writing and speech, but with a little focus and discipline, we have the tools to tighten the seam.


Pop Quiz

Using what you’ve learned in this article, choose the better sentence from each pair.

1a. It’s not like it’s unheard of.
1b. It’s possible.

2a. I do fifty push-ups a day.
2b. Not a day goes by when I don’t do at least fifty push-ups.

3a. It’s not that she doesn’t want to go.
3b. She can’t go because she’s busy.

4a. We hardly watch movies anymore.
4b. We don’t hardly watch movies anymore.


Pop Quiz Answers

1b. It’s possible.

2a. I do fifty push-ups a day.

3b. She can’t go because she’s busy.

4a. We hardly watch movies anymore.

Posted on Tuesday, March 19, 2019, at 11:00 pm

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6 Comments on Detaining the Double Negative

6 responses to “Detaining the Double Negative”

  1. Stewart says:

    It seems to me that where the double negative is unacceptable, the object of each negative is the same. In the sentence “I don’t have no time for supper,” the word “time” is the object of both “don’t” and “no.” But where the double negative is acceptable, the object of each negative is different. In the sentence “It’s not that he didn’t like it,” the negative “didn’t” speaks to the word “like,” and the negative “not” speaks to the word “didn’t.”

  2. Steve Rosenberg says:

    A form that resembles the double negative is the litotes where an affirmative is expressed by the negative of its contrary. For example, “I’m not unhappy with the results.” This is usually taken to mean that I am happy with the results, but it could also mean I’m neither happy nor unhappy, kind of blah. Better to just come out and say it: “I’m happy with the results” or “I don’t care one way or the other.”

  3. Audrey says:

    I agree using positives might be clearer, say for a foreign English speaker, but I think avoiding negatives will remove some of the richness of the slightly different nuances involved.

  4. John Christie says:

    The two variations of the championship game convey different ideas to me. The first example suggests that she continuously thinks about the championship game every year, while the second example suggests that her thoughts occur annually – maybe on the anniversary of the game? But then I am a lawyer, and we lawyers do look at language slightly differently from others. And of course that is just my take on the issue.

    • We appreciate your attention to detail and appreciate how your profession prompts such inspection of reasoning. We feel that including the word “year” in setting the window of time creates a closer connection between the positive and negative constructions than might be viable in courtroom proceedings.

      If we aimed for them to pass examination by counsel, perhaps the negative could be written as:
      Not a year passes when she does not think at least once of how they won the championship game.

      This may more closely match the positive:
      Every year she thinks of how they won the championship game.

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