- ‘I don’t know nothing.’
- ‘You ain’t going nowhere.’
- ‘I can’t see no one.’
Yep, this time around I’m looking at the double negative. Beloved of songwriters and people in EastEnders, it’s one of the few grammatical mistakes that annoys almost everyone.
So, just to make sure we’re all on the same page, let’s look at the rules around double negatives. You’ll notice that the three examples at the start of this post all have one thing in common – they’re horrible. They also have two negative words in them. And if we correct them, they only have one. I’ve highlighted the negative words below:
- Wrong: ‘I don’t know nothing.’ Right: ‘I don’t know anything.’
- Wrong: ‘You ain’t going nowhere.’ Right: ‘You ain’t [are not] going anywhere.’
- Wrong: ‘I can’t see no one.’ Right: ‘I can’t see any one.’
The simplest way to look at it is that, like in maths, two negatives make a positive (or cancel each other out). So you only need one to make a negative sentence. So far, so logical. But, as we so often find, the English language is a bit stupid sometimes. There are actually two types of double negatives – the ones I mention above which aren’t okay, and a second type, which are grammatically acceptable. (Honestly, I don’t know how anyone ever learns to speak this ridiculous language of ours.)
Double negatives that aren't not okay (i.e. okay)
Right, stay with me. It’s okay to use two negatives in the same sentence if you’re expressing a positive idea. Got it? No? Okay, here’s an example: ‘I can’t just do nothing.’ So you’ve got two negative words there – the ‘n’t’ of ‘can’t’ and ‘nothing’. But the sentence means I must do something, and actually expresses a stronger sentiment than just saying ‘I must do something’. This is called litotes – a figure of speech which uses negative words to make positive statements. It’s one of those annoying things that’s all about nuance (and is also terribly British) so is quite hard to explain. Here are some more examples of litotes in action:
- he’s not hard to look at (i.e. he’s Brad Pitt’s better-looking brother)
- it’s not too shabby (it’s blimmin’ awesome)
- this wasn’t my best idea (this was the worst idea I’ve ever had, ever).
Finally, here’s one from a proper writer – master of subtlety Jane Austen in the excellently named Emma: ‘She owned that, considering every thing, she was not absolutely without inclination for the party.’ We’ve all been there.
So technically speaking, the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd go straight to the bottom of the class for crimes against grammar (I Can’t Get No Satisfaction/We Don’t Need No Education), while Sir Tom of Jones gets a gold star for his use of litotes in It’s Not Unusual.
Language never stays unchanged
As I’ve previously mentioned on this blog, language evolves. If I was writing this in the 17th century (on parchment, by candlelight) I’d be saying exactly the opposite – it wasn’t until then that people tried to impose more logical rules on English. Check out this impressive triple negative from a little-known writer called William Shakespeare: ‘I never was nor never will be.’
And let’s not forget – language isn’t maths. So why do we feel the need to impose logical rules on it? Maybe it’s just so we can break them?