Don’t Be Negative About Negatives

A site visitor called attention to a sentence in one of my recent posts and asked, because it has two negatives, whether it is grammatically correct. The sentence in question? “In case you hadn’t heard, I couldn’t care less.”

The reader confused the appearance of two negative words with the concept of the double negative, which is not the same thing. In the sentence I used, each negative is located in a separate clause: Hadn’t appears in the dependent clause, and couldn’t is in the main, independent clause. Therefore, they don’t contradict each other.

But even if they did, would that be wrong? Not necessarily.

Two forms of double negative exist. One, referred to as two negatives resolving to a positive, is also known as litotes (LIE-tuh-tees), a rhetorical device in which emphasis is conveyed by understatement. For example, “I do not disagree,” a form of two negatives resolving to a positive, is an effective way to convey lukewarm concurrence.

“He is not unattractive,” likewise, is not the same as “He is attractive.” By using the double negative, the writer intends to damn with faint praise. The double negative carries the euphemistic connotation that the man in question is only merely pleasant looking rather than handsome.

The other form of double negative, known as two or more negatives resolving to a negative, is the one we associate with the grammarian’s admonition to avoid double negatives. Here are some examples of double negatives that are not considered specimens of proper English usage:

“I ain’t no fool.”
“She didn’t do nothing.”
“They ain’t going nowhere.”
“We don’t never go out.”
“You don’t have no money.”

Related examples employ a minimizing adverb instead of a negative:

“I can’t hardly tell.”
“He couldn’t barely see in that fog.”

But are these sentences grammatically challenged? Not really. They aren’t exemplars of Standard English, but they’re seldom unclear, and they are appropriate in context, to authentically convey the substandard usage of uneducated speakers of English.

To review, “In case you hadn’t heard, I couldn’t care less” is unimpeachable, “I do not disagree” and “He is not unattractive” are eloquent equivocations, and “I ain’t no fool” and similar constructions are entirely acceptable as expressions of dialect or of jocular usage.

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12 Responses to “Don’t Be Negative About Negatives”

  1. Leif G.S. Notae on February 20, 2012 2:26 am

    Ah, the sticky double negative. These are no fun, I can assure you. It is a great article and brings up something people often ignore. Glad you shared this with us and thanks as always!

  2. Steve M on February 20, 2012 10:17 am

    Ok, I have a question about “I couldn’t care less.” I’ve often wordered about that one. Here’s the question: Does that mean that you care so little that caring less is impossible, or that you care so much that it is impossible not to care? I know the former is the usual connotation, but what about the latter?

  3. Daniel Scocco on February 20, 2012 10:41 am

    @Steve M, your second interpretation doesn’t make sense. If you care “so much” for something, as you say, then saying you “couldn’t care less” wouldn’t make sense, cause you certainly could.

  4. Nelida K. on February 20, 2012 11:44 am

    About “I couldn’t care less”.

    It would be fitting to note here, that a wrong usage of this idiom (“I could care less”) is quite frequent, and you can see it even in journalistic articles – sorry that I don’t have any samples at hand – with the meaning that Daniel Scocco said, that is: “I couldn’t care less” is an idiom meaning, euphemistically, that you don’t care for something at all, or that something is of absolutely no importance to you. Definitely not the other way around.

  5. Nelida K. on February 20, 2012 11:46 am

    Forgot to add, in my previous comment, that this wrong usage (I could care less) instead of the correct one (I couldn’t care less) is what may have induced Steve M’s confusion.

  6. opsimath on February 20, 2012 1:32 pm

    Teacher: Two negatives never make a positive in the English language.

    Student: Yeah, right …

    Just a thought – you have a fascinating blog; thank you.

  7. Tony Hearn on February 20, 2012 3:41 pm

    Just a couple of comments:

    1) in British English ‘litotes’ is stressed on the second syllable.

    2) It is harsh to describe the “other form of double negative, known as two or more negatives resolving to a negative” as “the substandard usage of uneducated speakers of English”.

    it is true that the usage is frowned on in ‘standard English’. But the usage is native to English, with examples from writers throughout its history since Old English till well beyond Shakespeare and is still normal (and thereby acceptable) in most (at least British) dialects other than the ‘standard’ ones. At some point, however, those who decree these things outlawed the acceptability of the usage in standard use in both the UK and US. That doesn’t thereby make speakers of other dialects ignorant or substandard, though if the pattern were used in a standard or formal context it may be evidence of lack of knowledge of the standard dialect, which is not quite the same thing.

  8. Bo Udreau on February 20, 2012 9:23 pm

    What about saying “I can’t not respond to that.” which coveys not the effect of 2 negatives canceling each other–”I can respond.”, but actually implies “I am compelled to respond.”.

  9. Sally on February 21, 2012 6:16 am

    Well said, Tony.

    In comparison with the 1500 or so years of the existence of English as a separate language, the double negative ‘rule’ is no more than 250 years old. Without digressing into recondite linguistic theory (e.g., Jesperson’s Cycle), there seem to be several factors in its elevation to holy writ.

    Firstly, there was the eighteenth century desire to ‘control’ language, to ‘standardize’ it and reduce it to ‘logic’ and ‘science’ (in this case mathematics);

    The urge to standardize was related to the emergence of ‘national identities’ in the post medieval period. Italy had founded a body to regulate language in 1582, France in 1635 and Spain in 1713 – Britain didn’t found an ‘Academy’ but was still eager to create a ‘Standard English.’

    Most important for the current discussion was the fact that for a brief period in the ‘Golden Age’ of Classical Latin *literature,* the ‘rule’ was paramount – Rome and the Latin language were the templates for Western European civilization. For what it’s worth, however, I imagine that double negatives were quite usual in the markets and among ordinary Romans, as they have been in most other Indo-European languages, and indeed in most languages of the world.

    Modern linguists, like Mark and Tony, tend to be DE-scriptivists, who chart all varieties of language, rather than PRE-scriptivists, who pontificate on ‘correctness.’ Hence ‘standard’ and ‘non-standard’ rather than ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’

    And, Nelida K, your ‘wrong’ usage seems to be standard in US – between us, it grates on me too!

  10. jon on February 23, 2012 2:42 pm

    I don’t agree with your comment on ‘He is not unattractive’ for British English. While it can be meant in the way you say, it all depends on the intonation. I would say the most common use of this phrase would be to mean he’s very attractive – eg David Beckham, he’s not unattractive, is he? This is similar to ‘You’re not wrong’ which is generally used to mean ‘You’re very right’, but can also be used to say that’s not wrong, but…

  11. Stephen Thorn on February 29, 2012 2:34 pm

    Helpful information, to be sure. Somewhat reminds me of an advertising slogan from my youth: “Nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee!” The bakery company got a lot of free publicity out of that one because it was used as discussion fodder in numerous English classes for years.

  12. christopher on February 2, 2013 6:43 am

    In the popular phrase “I couldn’t care less”; if ‘any’ were added after ‘care’ and before ‘less’ there would be no confusion about the matter of how much or little one could care…

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