In this week’s episode of Everyday Grammar, we’re
going to talk about two common types of double negatives. A double negative
is when you use two negative words in the same clause of a sentence.
Let’s take a real-world example. In 2012, President
Obama spoke at United Nations about the Iran nuclear issue.
“America wants to resolve this issue through
diplomacy, and we believe that there is still time and space to do so. But that
time is not unlimited.”
What did the president mean when he said “not
unlimited?” Mr. Obama’s double negative statement confused many people.
English teachers do not like double negatives because
they can be confusing and illogical. Starting in elementary school,
teachers tell students to avoid them. But many native English speakers still
use double negatives.
There are two types of double negatives.
The first kind of double negative is when two negative
words form a positive statement. When President Obama said, “Time is not
unlimited,” the negative “not” and the negative prefix “un” cancel each
other out. What Mr. Obama meant is that time is limited for Iran.
Politicians, lawyers, and diplomats sometimes use this type of double negative
in sensitive situations.
The second type of double negative is when two
negatives form a stronger negative. For example, “I don’t know nothing.”
When you place a verb between two negative words, the result is usually a stronger
negative. But, if you told an English teacher, “I don’t know nothing,”
the teacher would probably correct you with, “I don’t know anything.”
This kind of double negative is taboo in professional and academic
situations. Some people see it as a sign of being poorly educated.
But English speakers have been using double negatives
for centuries. The first English translation of the Bible by King James used
double negatives. William Shakespeare even used a triple negative
in his play Richard III. Shakespeare wrote, “I never was nor never
will be.” Was Shakespeare wrong?
It was Robert Lowth who decided the double negative
had no place in English grammar. Robert Lowth was a leader in the Church of
England. In 1762, he wrote a book called A Short Introduction to English
Grammar. Mr. Lowth proposed many restrictions on English grammar,
many of them inspired by Latin. Over the years, his rules became the
standard for teaching grammar all over the English-speaking world.
But the double negative is alive and well, especially
in informal speech. In fact, some of the richness of the English
language comes from ignoring the rules. Listen for the double negative in the
song “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones.
"I can’t get no satisfaction
I can’t get no satisfaction
‘Cause I try and I try…"
Would the song have the same effect if Rolling Stones
singer Mick Jagger had said, “I cannot get any satisfaction”?
And surely Robert Lowth would not approve of pop star
Rihanna’s use of the double negative in her song called “Numb”.
“I don’t care, can’t tell me nothing”
The double negative is just one example of the
difference between how English is taught in school and how it is sometimes
So next time you get frustrated with English grammar,
don’t blame your teacher. Blame Robert Lowth.
Double Negative Type 1:
Negative + negative = weak positive
She is not incorrect. (She IS correct)
The plan is not without risk. (The plan HAS risk)
Time is not unlimited. (Time IS limited)
TIP: This type of negative is grammatically
acceptable, but should be avoided. It is used when the speakers want to be
indirect and avoid offending someone.
Double Negative Type 2:
Negative + verb + negative = strong negative
I haven’t seen nobody. (I haven’t seen anybody)
I can’t get no
satisfaction. (I can’t get any
Don’t tell me nothing. (Don’t tell me anything)
TIP: This type of double negative is sometimes used in
informal spoken English. One should avoid using it in academic and professional
situations—especially in TOEFL, IELTS, college or job application letters.