Detaining the Double Negative

We recently reviewed how negative constructions both serve English expression and muddy it more than positive constructions will. Another aspect of English negation that deserves a closer look is the double negative.

To convey something is incorrect or untrue, English offers words such as no, not, nothing, barely, scarcely, and hardly, as well as terms with cancelling prefixes such as improbable and incomplete. In concise writing, we will use only one of these words to form a negative statement:

don’t have time for supper.
hardly remember that name.
They had nothing to say about the subject.

A double negative includes two of these words:

don’t have no time for supper.
can’t hardly remember that name.
They didn’t have nothing to say about the subject.

In certain contexts, the double negative can accommodate English by aiming to produce a positive thought or a less negative one, as in the following examples:

I guess it’s not impossible.
Not a year passes when she does not think of how they won the championship game.
It’s not that he didn’t like it. 

However, beyond being redundant and unclear, a double negative can suggest an absence of eloquence, as well as conviction. Consider the same preceding sentences without the double negative:

I guess it’s possible. Or, more succinctly, It’s possible.
Every year she thinks of how they won the championship game.
He thought it was so-so.

Interpreted more closely, a double negative also can turn a thought intended to negate into one that confirms:

don’t have no time for supper. (To not have no time for supper could mean “I do have time …”)
can’t hardly remember that name. (To not remember that name hardly could mean “I can remember …”)

As we put forth in our last article on the negative, using positive, more-direct language will almost always achieve more with less. Like a loose stitch in our quilt of expression, the double negative may still work its way into our writing and speech, but with a little focus and discipline, we have the tools to tighten the seam.


Pop Quiz

Using what you’ve learned in this article, choose the better sentence from each pair.

1a. It’s not like it’s unheard of.
1b. It’s possible.

2a. I do fifty push-ups a day.
2b. Not a day goes by when I don’t do at least fifty push-ups.

3a. It’s not that she doesn’t want to go.
3b. She can’t go because she’s busy.

4a. We hardly watch movies anymore.
4b. We don’t hardly watch movies anymore.


Pop Quiz Answers

1b. It’s possible.

2a. I do fifty push-ups a day.

3b. She can’t go because she’s busy.

4a. We hardly watch movies anymore.

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