Double Negatives to Avoid

By Maeve Maddox

A French speaker who says “Je ne sais rien” raises no eyebrows among the educated, but an English speaker who says “I don’t know nothing” is immediately marked as semi-literate. (French ne corresponds to English not and rien to nothing.)

Some languages, like French and Spanish, have what is called “negative concord,” usage that allows two negatives to express a single negation without being considered incorrect. Double negatives in English came to be seen as ungrammatical after the Middle Ages.

Considering the wide use of double negatives in nonstandard English dialects of English,
one might wonder why the double negative is disdained in the standard dialects.

In 1762 a very learned English bishop named Robert Lowth (1710-1787) published A Short Introduction to English Grammar. The bishop stated this rule:

Two Negatives in English destroy one another, or are equivalent to an Affirmative.

Lowth was a scholar of Latin and Hebrew. Both those ancient languages lack negative concord.

Bishop Lowth’s opinion has become our rule. Never use not in the same sentence as the following:

hardly
scarcely
only (in some contexts; does not apply to “not only…but also”)
neither
never
no one
nobody
nothing
no
none

Here are some examples of sentences that rarely cause confusion in nonstandard dialects, but which are incorrect in standard English:

Note: the asterisk indicates that the sentence is nonstandard.

*She was so weak she couldn’t hardly sit up.
*Scarcely nobody came to my party.
*I can’t stay only a few minutes.
*I didn’t know neither her telephone number nor her address.
*I never saw no one I thought prettier.
*I don’t know nothing about building a compost pile.
*We don’t need no education
*I don’t want none of those escargots.

Here are the same thoughts expressed in standard English:

She was so weak she could hardly sit up.
Scarcely anybody came to my party.
I can stay only a few minutes.
I knew neither her telephone number nor her address.
I never saw anyone I thought prettier.
I don’t know anything about building a compost pile.
We don’t need an education
I don’t want any of those escargots.

Note: Not all double negatives in English earn an F from grammarians. The “not un-” construction popular in the 17th century is still acceptable in standard English. For example, here’s a comment from a travel article: “the flavor was unusual, but not unappealing.” Both not and unappealing are negatives. The idea is that the flavor is too strange to actually be “appealing,” but is nevertheless palatable. To state the thought otherwise would alter the writer’s intended meaning.

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14 Responses to “Double Negatives to Avoid”

  • John

    The French construction “ne… rien” is not a double negative, any more than is “ne.. pas”, or “ne… plus” or “ne… jamais”.

    That is simply the way the grammar of the language works.

  • Nigel Nunn

    Dear Sir,
    With reference to your piece on double negatives, you say that “not” cannot be used with the word “only” . Can you tell me what is incorrect about “Not only is he a fool but he is a devious fool”?

    “I can’t stay only a few minutes” Might be expanded to read “I cannot stay a few minutes as you request because my wooden leg has collapsed and I am unable to walk away”.

    Regards
    Nigel

  • Steve Orme

    Great post. But don’t forget that not and only CAN be used in the same sentence when you write “not only . . . but also”.

  • Valerie Gorman

    The not un- construction you speak of is a typically British way of phrasing a hyperbole: We had a not unsuccessful fishing trip.

  • Lisa Tepper

    Wasn’t it Butterfly McQueen who said in “GWTW”: “I don’t know nothin ’bout birthin babies, Miss Scarlett!” That’s a great example.

  • David Mendosa

    Thank you, Maeve, for adding to my understanding of this basic issue. It reminds me of this perhaps apocryphal exchange:

    An MIT linguistics professor was lecturing his class the other day. “In English,” he said, “a double negative forms a positive. However, in some languages, such as Russian, a double negative remains a negative. But there isn’t a single language, not one, in which a double positive can express a negative.”

    A voice from the back of the room piped up, “Yeah, right.”

    Namaste,

    David

  • Steve Berkshire

    Never use “not” in the same sentence with “only”? What about the “not only…but also” construction?

  • B Rambo

    Actually, using “not” in the same sentence with “only” ain’t that big a deal. Not only is it acceptable, but it can be very useful.

  • Dale A. Wood

    “Never use not in the same sentence as the following: only.”

    There is a standard construction in sentences in our languages that goes:
    “Not only….but also….”, where the idea is to fill in for the two ellipses.
    For example, “Not only is he as strong as Hercules, but also he is as smart as Ulysses.”

    You could replace many of these phrases with other ones like “as fast as Mercury”, “as wise as Athena”, “as bright as Apollo”, “as warlike as Mars” (or Napoleon or Alexander the Great), “as cruel as Atilla the Hun” (or Genghis Khan).
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Rather than “yeah, right”, I have often read it written as “yeah, yeah”.
    It is a joke all the way, and it doesn’t really have anything to do with MIT or any other prestigious school.
    D.A.W.

  • venqax

    While double negatives are simply bad grammar in English, I do remember one learned commentator (can’t remember who) mentioning the fact that, nonetheless, English isn’t algebra and rules like “two negatives make a positive” are not applicable. Sometimes that is the effect, but generally just say double negatives are grammatically incorrect and you can leave it at that.

    I think it’s telling that people want to latch on to a “logical” reason that something is grammatically wrong. Grammar, for some reason, is always suspect nowdays because its rules appear to be random or arbitrary rather than purely rational. We see it on this site all the time when a grammatical rule is adduced. There is always someone chiming in from the chorus of, “Oh yeah? Says who. Who makes those rules and why do I have to obey them? I don’t have to be grammarical if I don’t want to do it like that or say it.” Language, of course, doesn’t work that way, in both senses of the phrase.

  • venqax

    …or “as artsy-craftsy as Hephaestus”, “as non-gluten free as Demeter”, “as pretty-much-the-same-as-Heracles as Hercules”…

  • Peter Buxton

    If a double negative forms a positive, does the advertisers’ overworked phrase “a saving of 20% off” mean you add 20%?

  • Jake

    “the flavor was unusual, but not unappealing.”

    – is a sentence that employs a figure of speech that we call ‘litotes’.

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