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.