Two Wrongs Make a Right…Sometimes

Do you like being negative? I don’t mean it in the way someone would say: “Nancy, stop being so negative, you’re bringing the party down.” Nope, this party will still be raging even if you’re giving your sentences negative vibes by using double negatives. A double negative occurs when “two forms of negation are present in the same clause,” according to Up until around the 16th century, double negatives were considered a normal part of English usage. Take a look at the Canterbury Tales. Today, though, double negatives aren’t considered acceptable or proper in current Standard English.

Consider the sentence, “he didn’t say nothing.” The “not” implied in the word “didn’t” and the negative word “nothing” give this sentence negative concordance. In effect, (depending on the dialect of English being spoken) the second negation may either intensify the first, or the two negatives cancel each other out and the sentence can be interpreted as “he did say something.” It really all boils down to the notion of what some people consider to be correct usage of English and what actually happens in language. Obviously one would not use double negatives in formal writing, but they have been proven to be very useful in other informal pursuits. Double negatives can be used to rhetorical effect through the use of litotes. To give the positive statement “she is kind” an understated, subtle quality one could say, “She is not unkind.” I don’t think that’s a terrible way to use double negatives (see what I did there?).

Though this sort of thing is frowned upon in formal English, in many romance languages multiple negatives are grammatically necessary. “He didn’t say nothing” is translated into Spanish as the grammatically correct statement, “no le dijo nada.” Double negatives can also be used as a point of emphasis, consider the statement “nunca jamás vuelvo.” “Nunca” and “jamás” both mean never, and reinforce the feelings of the speaker.

So, if your regional dialect of English makes use of double negatives, or your idiosyncratic way of speaking makes full use of litotes, I wouldn’t feel too bad about it (see, I did it again). In my opinion, as long as you avoid double negatives in formal writing, I ‘aint got no problem with that.

What’s your stance on double negatives? Do you think they deserve to be stigmatized, or does your dialect make use of them?