Don’t do no double negatives

Dec 16, 2010 by

Among the various “poisonous tomatoes” of English grammar — constructions criticized by prescriptive grammarians without any regard to their true “nutritional” value — none gets so much negative press as the double negative. In fact, this construction should be properly called “multiple negative”, as it can involve not just two, but three, four and potentially any number of negatives. But I will stick to the more common term for now and come back to the issue of “how many” towards the end of the posting.

One of the first published prohibitions against “double negatives” is to be found in Robert Lowth’s 1762 A Short Introduction to English Grammar. He writes:

“Two negatives in English destroy one another, or equivalent to an affirmative.”

And yet, double negatives have been a part of historical and regional non-standard varieties of English. For example, Chaucer is known for his extensive use of double, and even triple and quadruple negatives in his Canterbury Tales. About the Friar, he writes “Ther nas no man no wher so vertuous” (“There never was no man nowhere so virtuous”). About the Knight, “He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde / In all his lyf unto no maner wight” (“He never yet no vileness didn’t say / In all his life to no manner of man”).

Double negatives were also legitimate in the English of Oliver Cromwell, who, following the battle of Marston Moor, quoted his nephew’s dying words in a letter to the boy’s father Valentine Walton:

“A little after, he said one thing lay upon his spirit. I asked him what it was. He told me it was that God had not suffered him to be no more the executioner of His enemies.”

Curiously, although this particular letter has often been reprinted, it is frequently changed to read “not … any” instead.

And Shakespeare was able to get away with three negatives in “Nor no man neither“.

Double negatives are also employed as a normal part of the grammar of many non-standard varieties of English: Southern American English and African American Vernacular English (AAVE), of many British regional dialects, particularly the East London and East Anglian dialects, and of Southern Atlantic varieties of English spoken on the islands of St. Helena and Tristan da Cunha.

Here are a few examples:

I didn’t know nothin’ ’bout gettin’ no checks to (=for) nothin’, no so (=social) security or nothin’. (AAVE)

I couldn’t find hardly none on’em. (dialect of East Anglia)

You no eat no food. (St. Helenian English)

Nobody never come out or nothing. (Tristan da Cunha English)

Moreover, double negatives are very common in the world’s languages. It is a perfectly normal way to express strengthened negation in languages as diverse as Russian and Spanish, Afrikaans and Ancient Greek, Welsh and Finnish, and many others.

So what is the logic behind the prohibition against double negatives in English? Actually, prescriptivists think that the use of double negatives is illogical. As Robert Lowth suggested already in 1762, two negatives destroy each other resulting in an affirmative.

There’s so much wrong with this claim! First of all, language is not at all logical. If it were, would we “park on driveways” and “drive on parkways”?! Second, as Peter Brodie put it so beautifully:

“…minus-one plus minus-one equals minus-two; … a double negative, like a double whisky, is twice as strong.”

And third, if we are to develop the logic behind the claim that two negatives annul each other, it should mean that three negatives amount to a negative and four to an affirmative, and so on. The problem, of course, is that there seems to be no difference between using two or three (or four or five) negatives. Not for the speakers who use them and not for the prescriptivists who ban them alike. And this is because language/grammar does not allow counting — an issue we will explore in the next posting.

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