What Is a Double Negative and When Should It Be Used?
A lot of us recall learning about double negatives in high school and why we shouldn’t use them. Aren’t double negatives incorrect?
The short answer is yes. But do you know why double negatives are grammatically incorrect? Most of the time, double negatives are not explained, nor are the reasons they don’t align with standard English grammar.
Sure, using too many double negatives can harm your reputation as a competent communicator, but it’s essential to understand precisely why. Poised explains it in detail here.
What Is a Double Negative?
Essentially, a double negative is when you use two negatives in a single clause. This construction is widely considered unacceptable in formal language, but many writers and speakers use double negatives to intensify or emphasize a negative meaning.
In a double negative, the words effectively cancel each other out. So, in a way, the negative meaning is not intensified but rather made positive.
Should you never use double negatives? As with any language issue, you must consider the context and your desired message to determine how to communicate it most effectively.
Some of the most common negative words used in a double negative construction include:
You must also consider negative adverbs, such as scarcely, hardly, and barely.
In most cases, it's possible to convey a double negative idea in more formal language. Yet, that's not to say you should never use double negatives. Artists use this construction all the time and see great results (which we’ll talk more about later).
Is a Double Negative Actually Positive?
Many grammarians frown upon using double negatives. In their view, double negatives sound awkward and are grammatically incorrect. A double negative can weaken the message it's a part of. It often has a weaker impact than using a single negative statement correctly. Double negatives don’t create an aura of confidence.
You can turn a sentence into a double negative by combining a negative word or prefix with a common negative word. When you have two negatives, it makes the sentence a positive statement.
In other words, you communicate the opposite of what you mean when you use a double negative. Double negatives can be thoroughly confusing and open the door to misinterpretation and misunderstanding. As such, grammarians might suggest that you stick with a single negative to convey your ideas and sentiments.
Why Are There So Many Double Negatives in Song Lyrics?
There have been countless songs written over the years that contain double negatives. Some of the world's most famous songs depict two negatives in a single line that grammatically cancel each other out.
We all know that artists are not often beholden to standard English conventions. Even classic literary masters like Shakespeare and Chaucer used a wealth of double negatives to express the emotions and thoughts their characters were experiencing.
Sometimes, songwriters embrace grammatical errors to maintain a consistent rhythm in context with the rest of the song. Double negatives often express a sentiment more intensely than a single negation can.
Here are some of the most famous song lyrics that contain double negatives:
- “I can't get no satisfaction” (“Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones)
- “Ain't no mountain high enough” (“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson)
- “Ain't no sunshine when she's gone” (“Ain't No Sunshine" by Bill Withers)
- “Got nothing to hide no more” ("Shape of My Heart” by Backstreet Boys)
- “I can't get no sleep” (“Insomnia” by Faithless)
- “Never wanted nothing more” (“Never Wanted Nothing More” by Kenny Chesney)
Are Double Negatives Grammatically Correct?
Technically, double negatives are not grammatically correct. In 1972, Church of England leader and poetry professor Robert Lowth published A Short Introduction to English Grammar, which essentially put forth his opinion that the double negative didn’t belong in English grammar. This book contained many other restrictions on English grammar that would eventually become standard throughout the entire English-speaking world.
But that doesn't mean the double negative is dead. In fact, the grammatically incorrect construction is alive and well, particularly in informal writing and speech. The use of double negatives is just one of many examples of how breaking the rules can extract beauty and richness from the English language.
Should You Ever Use Double Negatives?
Keeping too many double negatives in your vocabulary can quickly make you appear like an incompetent communicator. First, understand that standard English dictates that a subject-predicate construction should only contain one negative form. You create a negative verb by combining the verb with a negation, as in "They are not going to the concert."
Also, a double negative uses two negative forms and is considered a non-standard sentence construction. This means that the verb has a negation, along with the noun’s modifier or the verb’s object, as in "He won’t (will not) take no prisoners."
Furthermore, standard English negation is a challenging principle to learn because so many languages and English dialects use double negatives liberally. That's right — in many languages, double negatives are grammatically correct. It gets complicated.
The key is to use double negatives sparingly to intensify a concept or emotion. Double negatives can also prove helpful for connecting with your audience on a relational level during presentations, meetings, and other workplace functions.
If the “non-standard construction” is a conventional part of your dialect, you may be able to use it to your advantage. This technique works for actor Matthew McConaughey, so you might want to give it a shot too!
What Are Some Examples of Double Negatives in Sentences?
Now we’ve reviewed what double negatives are in theory, let’s practice some.
Let's take a look at some example sentences so you can see them in action:
- I did not know neither the month nor the year. (This technically implies that you knew both the month and the year.)
- She is not unattractive. (In this case, the double negative is useful if the person wants to imply that she is attractive without saying it outright.)
- Seriously, I don't want nothing to do with that argument. (This suggests that you indeed want something to do with the argument.)
- The grandmother was not uncaring. (This is another instance when the double negative is welcome, especially if the grandmother trod the line between caring and uncaring.)
- I swear, I didn't see nothing on the night of the accident. (You didn't see nothing technically conveys that you saw something).
How To Avoid Using Double Negatives
The easiest way to avoid using double negatives is to record yourself speaking to identify your weak points. If you want to go to the next level, have your speech transcribed to see it in written form.
Remember that any negative proposition must only contain a single negative. Negative terms like no, nobody, never, and nothing express negation by themselves. Therefore, "She has nothing to worry about" conveys the same message as "She has not anything to worry about." Likewise, "He never comes to see me" is akin to "He doesn't ever come to see me."
However, if you were to say, "She ain't got nothing to worry about," you would be drowning in negations. Hearing this spoken back to you or seeing it written out would make the error clear. You would know to simply remove the word ain’t and leave the single negation for a grammatically correct sentence.
Use a Speech Coach
Another way to cut down on the double negatives in your speech is to use a speech coach like Poised. With real-time insights and long-term analyses, the software can help you improve a range of metrics and ultimately help you communicate more confidently, competently, and impactfully.
Use a Spelling and Grammar Checker
If you want to spruce up your written communication, look to a top-notch spelling and grammar checker. Grammarly and Hemingway are two of the most popular writing assistants, and each can help you write more concisely and clearly. Generally, you'll see a red line any time you type a double negative with a suggestion for removing it.
Take Your Communication to the Next Level
Double negatives can come across as uneducated and nonstandard. So, it’s easy to see how using too many of them could hinder your impact as a communicator. Be mindful of the double negatives in your vocabulary so you can speak with more clarity.
You can also communicate more effectively and engage your audience by incorporating an AI coach into your virtual meetings. Poised will help you improve with each meeting and provide a bird’s-eye view of your performance over time.
Improving Sentence Clarity | Purdue Online Writing Lab
The Bishop's Grammar: Robert Lowth and the Rise of Prescriptivism | Linguistic Society
Double Negatives | Effective Writing Practices Tutorial | Northern Illinois University