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What's a Double Negative? 5 Ways to Use Them Correctly

You need to be careful with double negatives, but they aren’t always wrong.

By
Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #666
doublenegatives

I made an embarrassing mistake the other day. I wrote "I can't hardly believe..." when I should have written "I can hardly believe..."

"Can't hardly" is an example of a double negative—something many writing experts say you should avoid—and it also doesn't make much sense if you look at it logically. Often double negatives mean the opposite of what you are trying to say. (But you may have heard me say before that English isn’t always a logical language, and you’ll see that’s the case here too.)

Double Negatives in Chaucer and Shakespeare

Double negatives used to be much more common in English than they are today, and Chaucer seemed to like them. For example, he describes the Knight in “The Canterbury Tales" by saying, “He never yet no vileness didn’t say.” That’s more than a double  negative! That’s a multiple negative.

Shakespeare also used double negatives. For example, in “As You Like It,” Celia says, “I cannot go no further.” If “you can go no further” was negative, then “you can’t go no further” was even more negative or emphatic.

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In Shakespeare’s and Chaucer’s time, it was normal to use double and triple negatives to add emphasis, and even today, other languages, such as Spanish and French, also use double negatives to add emphasis to the negativity. 

In some dialects today, people still use double negatives for emphasis. For example, “I’m not doing nothing” can seem stronger than “I’m not doing anything.” But double negatives like that aren’t considered Standard English anymore. In other words, some people will look down on you if you use them.

The Original Rules Against Double Negatives

It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that prescriptivist grammarians started saying we shouldn’t use double negatives in English because they aren’t logical. Robert Lowth, a bishop and toweringly influential grammarian of his time, and who is also known for promoting the idea that we shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition, advised people to avoid double negatives. Lindley Murray, another influential grammarian, repeated the advice in the early nineteenth century, writing in his book “An English Grammar,”

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

He gives this example sentence:

His language, though inelegant, is not ungrammatical.

He advises that instead of using the double negative and saying “not ungrammatical,” you should say “it is grammatical.”

1. Double Negatives Can Convey Complicated Meanings

In more recent times, though, many writers have decided this is a much too simplistic view of English. Our language isn’t as straightforward as math. Some double negatives can subtly change the meaning of a sentence. “Not ungrammatical” seems like fainter praise than “grammatical.” 

Another example would be when you say something like “I’m not unhappy that Norman got fired.” You can’t go so far as to say you’re happy about it, but you’re not unhappy about it either. In this case, the “not” doesn’t cancel out the “unhappy.” “Not unhappy” isn’t the same as “happy.” It’s something more complicated.

2. Double Negatives Can Keep the Emphasis on the Negative

Occasionally, double negatives are useful when you want to place emphasis on something bad. For example, I once saw a sentence in the “New Scientist” that referred to “less unhealthy cigarettes.” "Less unhealthy" is a double negative—"healthier" would be the positive way to say it—but "less unhealthy" keeps the emphasis on cigarettes' dangers.

3. Double Negatives Can Leave a Way Out

In a 2016 paper, Merima Osmankadić from the University of Sarajevo did a deep dive on how people use double negatives in politics and found many of these uses and more. For example, double negatives can also leave the speaker a way out. It’s easier to back away from a statement in which you say it is “not unlikely” that someone is guilty than a statement in which you say it is “likely” that someone is guilty. It can also be perceived as being polite or being less threatening to make the statement in this slightly softer way.

I also sometimes interpret such statements as concessions: Although you’d like to believe it’s not true, it could be. For example, if evidence was mounting that Squiggly committed a crime even though I didn’t want to believe it, I might say something like “Well, it’s not inconceivable that Squiggly stole the chocolate and lied about it.”

4. Double Negatives Can Arise When There’s No Positive Equivalent

Double negatives also pop up when there isn’t a direct positive phrase you can use. In fact, just today I noticed I used a double negative when my husband misread a candy bar that said it was a dark chocolate baton, thinking it said it was dark chocolate bacon. To which I replied, “Well, that wouldn’t be unheard of.” I could have reworded the sentence completely, but saying, “Well, that’s heard of” isn’t an option. It’s not something we say in English.

Similar phrases Osmankadić highlighted include saying you are “not indifferent” to something (you can’t say you “are different” to something), and saying something “can’t continue indefinitely" (again, “definitely” isn’t the opposite of “indefinitely,” so you can’t say something will “continue definitely”). If you want to restate those sentences positively, you need to do a bigger rewrite than just getting rid of the double negatives.

5. Double Negatives Can Create Parallelism

Further, Osmankadić highlighted instances in which speakers used double negatives to embrace parallelism, for example in the line “It was unexpected but not unwelcome.” That has a nicer rhythm than “It was unexpected but welcome.”

When To Use Double Negatives

To sum up, double negatives have a long history in English, and used to be commonly used to add emphasis, but old-time prescriptive grammarians claimed to dislike all double negatives. Today’s reality lies somewhere in the middle. 

Using phrases like “I can’t hardly wait” and “We don’t need no education” can cause people to wonder whether you have a decent command of the English language (although we shouldn’t forget that they are accepted dialect in some regions), but many people use more subtle double negatives like “It’s not inconceivable,” “I’m not unhappy,” and “It’s not unusual” to fit the situation or convey rich meanings. Maybe they’re being polite. Maybe their feelings are between the positive and negative. Or maybe they don’t know exactly how usual something is.

You need to be careful with double negatives, but they aren’t always wrong.

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