A double negative is a grammatical construction occurring when two forms of negation are used in the same sentence. Multiple negation is the more general term referring to the occurrence of more than one negative in a clause. In some languages, double negatives cancel one another and produce an affirmative; in other languages, doubled negatives intensify the negation. Languages where multiple negatives affirm each other are said to have negative concord or emphatic negation. Portuguese, Persian, Russian, Spanish, Neapolitan, Italian, Japanese, Bulgarian, Czech, Polish, Afrikaans, Hebrew, and some dialects of English, such as African-American Vernacular English, are examples of negative-concord languages, while Latin and German do not have negative concord. It is cross-linguistically observed that negative-concord languages are more common than those without.
Languages without negative concord typically have negative polarity items that are used in place of additional negatives when another negating word already occurs. Examples are "ever", "anything" and "anyone" in the sentence "I haven't ever owed anything to anyone" (cf. "I haven't never owed nothing to no one" in negative-concord dialects of English, and "Nunca devi nada a ninguém" in Portuguese, lit. "Never have I owed nothing to no one", or "Non ho mai dovuto nulla a nessuno" in Italian). Note that negative polarity can be triggered not only by direct negatives such as "not" or "never", but also by words such as "doubt" or "hardly" ("I doubt he has ever owed anything to anyone" or "He has hardly ever owed anything to anyone").
Stylistically, in English, double negatives can sometimes be used for affirmation (e.g. "I'm not feeling not good"), an understatement of the positive ("I'm feeling good"). The rhetorical term for this is litotes.
- 1 English
- 2 Germanic languages
- 3 Latin and Romance languages
- 4 Welsh
- 5 Greek
- 6 Slavic languages
- 7 Baltic languages
- 8 Uralic languages
- 9 Turkish
- 10 Japanese
- 11 Chinese
- 12 History of languages
- 13 See also
- 14 References
- 15 Works cited
Two negatives resolving to a positive
When two negatives are used in one independent clause, in standard English the negatives are understood to cancel one another and produce a weakened affirmative::see the Robert Lowth citation below this is known as litotes. However, depending on how such a sentence is constructed, in some dialects if a verb or adverb is in between two negatives then the latter negative is assumed to be intensifying the former thus adding weight or feeling to the negative clause of the sentence. For this reason, it is difficult to portray double negatives in writing as the level of intonation to add weight in one's speech is lost. A double negative intensifier does not necessarily require the prescribed steps, and can easily be ascertained by the mood or intonation of the speaker.
- There isn't no other way.
- There isn't no other way!
These two sentences would be different in how they are communicated by speech. Any assumption would be correct, and the first sentence can be just as right or wrong in intensifying a negative as it is in cancelling it out; thereby rendering the sentence's meaning ambiguous. Since there is no adverb or verb to support the latter negative, the usage here is ambiguous and lies totally on the context behind the sentence. In light of punctuation, the second sentence can be viewed as the intensifier; and the former being a statement thus an admonishment.
In Standard English, two negatives are understood to resolve to a positive. This rule was observed as early as 1762, when Bishop Robert Lowth wrote A Short Introduction to English Grammar with Critical Notes. For instance, "I do not disagree" could mean "I certainly agree", "I agree", "I sort of agree", "I don't understand your point of view", "I have no opinion", and so on; it is a form of "weasel words". Further statements are necessary to resolve which particular meaning was intended.
This is opposed to the single negative "I do not agree", which typically means "I disagree". However, the statement "I do not completely disagree" is a similar double negative to "I do not disagree" but needs little or no clarification.
With the meaning "I completely agree", Lowth would have been referring to litotes wherein two negatives simply cancel each other out. However, the usage of intensifying negatives and examples are presented in his work, which could also imply he wanted either usage of double negatives abolished. Because of this ambiguity, double negatives are frequently employed when making back-handed compliments. The phrase "Mr. Jones was not incompetent." will seldom mean "Mr. Jones was very competent" since the speaker would have found a more flattering way to say so. Instead, some kind of problem is implied, though Mr. Jones possesses basic competence at his tasks.
Two or more negatives resolving to a negative
Double negatives are usually associated with regional and ethnical dialects such as Southern American English, African American Vernacular English, and various British regional dialects. Indeed, they were used in Middle English. Historically, Chaucer made extensive use of double, triple, and even quadruple negatives in his Canterbury Tales. About the Friar, he writes "Ther nas no man no wher so vertuous" ("There never was no man nowhere so virtuous"). About the Knight, "He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde / In all his lyf unto no maner wight" ("He never yet no vileness didn't say / In all his life to no manner of man").
Following the battle of Marston Moor, Oliver Cromwell quoted his nephew's dying words in a letter to the boy's father Valentine Walton: "A little after, he said one thing lay upon his spirit. I asked him what it was. He told me it was that God had not suffered him to be no more the executioner of His enemies." Although this particular letter has often been reprinted, it is frequently changed to read "not ... to be any more" instead.
Whereas some double negatives may resolve to a positive, in some dialects others resolve to intensify the negative clause within a sentence. For example:
- I didn't go nowhere today.
- I'm not hungry no more.
- You don't know nothing.
- There was never no more laziness at work than before.
In contrast, some double negatives become positives:
- I didn't not go to the park today.
- We can't not go to sleep!
The key to understanding the former examples and knowing whether a double negative is intensive or negative is finding a verb between the two negatives. If a verb is present between the two, the latter negative becomes an intensifier which does not negate the former. In the first example, the verb to go separates the two negatives; therefore the latter negative does not negate the already negated verb. Indeed, the word 'nowhere' is thus being used as an adverb and does not negate the argument of the sentence. One interesting thing to note is that double negatives such as I don't want to know no more contrasts with Romance languages such as French in Je ne veux pas savoir. 
An exception is when the second negative is stressed, as in I'm not doing nothing; I'm thinking. A sentence can otherwise usually only become positive through consecutive uses of negatives, such as those prescribed in the later examples, where a clause is void of a verb and lacks an adverb to intensify it. Two of them also use emphasis to make the meaning clearer. The last example is a popular example of a double negative that resolves to a positive. This is because the verb 'to doubt' has no intensifier which effectively resolves a sentence to a positive. Had we added an adverb thus:
- I have no doubt never this sentence is false.
Then what happens is that the verb to doubt becomes intensified, which indeed deduces that the sentence is indeed false since nothing was resolved to a positive. The same applies to the third example, where the adverb 'more' merges with the prefix no- to become a negative word, which when combined with the sentence's former negative only acts as an intensifier to the verb hungry. Where people think that the sentence I'm not hungry no more resolves to a positive is where the latter negative no becomes an adjective which only describes its suffix counterpart more which effectively becomes a noun, instead of an adverb. This is a valid argument since adjectives do indeed describe the nature of a noun; yet some fail to take into account that the phrase no more is only an adverb and simply serves as an intensifier. Another argument used to support the position double negatives aren't acceptable is a mathematical analogy: negating a negative number results in a positive one; e.g., − −2 = +2; therefore, it is argued, I did not go nowhere resolves to I went somewhere.
Other forms of double negatives, which are popular to this day and do strictly enhance the negative rather than destroying it, are described thus:
Philosophies aside, this form of double negative is still in use whereby the use of 'nor' enhances the negative clause by emphasizing what isn't to be. Opponents of double negatives would have preferred I'm not entirely familiar with Nihilism or Existentialism; however this renders the sentence somewhat empty of the negative clause being advanced in the sentence. This form of double negative along with others described are standard ways of intensifying as well as enhancing a negative. The use of 'nor' to emphasise the negative clause is still popular today, and has been popular in the past through works of Shakespeare and Milton:
To the common reader the negatives herein do not cancel each other out but simply emphasizes the negative clause.
Up to the 18th century, double negatives were used to emphasize negation. "Prescriptive grammarians" recorded and codified a shift away from the double negative in the 1700s. Double negatives continue to be spoken by those of Vernacular English, such as those of Appalachian English and African American Vernacular English. To such speakers, they view double negatives as emphasizing the negative rather than cancelling out the negatives. Researchers have studied African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and trace its origins back to colonial English. This shows that double negatives were present in colonial English, and thus presumably English as a whole, and were acceptable at that time. English after the 18th century was changed to become more logical and double negatives became seen as canceling each other as in mathematics. The use of double negatives became associated with being uneducated and illogical.
In his Essay towards a practical English Grammar of 1711, James Greenwood first recorded the rule: "Two Negatives, or two Adverbs of Denying do in English affirm". Robert Lowth stated in his grammar textbook A Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762) that "two negatives in English destroy one another, or are equivalent to an affirmative". Grammarians have assumed that Latin was the model for Lowth and other early grammarians in prescribing against negative concord, as Latin does not feature it. Data indicates, however, that negative concord had already fallen into disuse in Standard English by the time of Lowth's grammar, and no evidence exists that the loss was driven by prescriptivism, which was well established by the time it appeared.
In film and television
Double negatives have been employed in various films and television shows. In the film Mary Poppins, the chimney sweep Bert employs a double negative when he says, "If you don't want to go nowhere..." Another is used by the bandits in the "Stinking Badges" scene of John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre: "Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges!".
More recently, the British television show EastEnders has received some publicity over the Estuary accent of character Dot Branning, who speaks with double and triple negatives ("I ain't never heard of no licence.").. In the Harry Enfield sketch "Mr Cholmondley-Warner's Guide to the Working-Class", a stereotypical Cockney employs a septuple-negative: "Inside toilet? I ain't never not heard of one of them nor I ain't nor nothing."
In music, double negatives can be employed to similar effect (as in Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall", in which schoolchildren chant "We don't need no education / We don't need no thought control") or used to establish a frank and informal tone (as in The Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction").
Double negation is uncommon in other West Germanic languages. A notable exception is Afrikaans, where it is mandatory (for example, "He cannot speak Afrikaans" becomes Hy kan nie Afrikaans praat nie, "He cannot Afrikaans speak not"). Dialectal Dutch, French and San have been suggested as possible origins for this trait. Its proper use follows a set of fairly complex rules as in these examples provided by Bruce Donaldson:
- Ek het nie geweet dat hy sou kom nie. ("I did not know that he would be coming.")
- Ek het geweet dat hy nie sou kom nie. ("I knew that he would not be coming.")
- Hy sal nie kom nie, want hy is siek. ("He will not be coming because he is sick.")
- Dit is nie so moeilik om Afrikaans te leer nie. ("It is not so difficult to learn Afrikaans.")
Another point of view is that this construction is not really an example of a "double negative" but simply a grammatical template for negation. The second nie cannot be understood as a noun or adverb (as can, e.g., pas in French), and cannot be substituted by any part of speech other than itself with the sentence remaining grammatical. It is a grammatical particle with no independent meaning that happens to be spelled and pronounced the same as the embedded nie, meaning "not", through historical accident.
The second nie is used if and only if the sentence or phrase doesn't already end with nie or another negating adverb.
- Ek sien jou nie. ("I don't see you")
- Ek sien jou nooit. ("I never see you")
Afrikaans shares with English the property that two negatives make a positive. For example,
- Ek stem nie met jou saam nie. ("I don't agree with you." )
- Ek stem nie nié met jou saam nie. ("I don't not agree with you," i.e., I agree with you.)
While double negation is still found in the Low Franconian dialects of west Flanders (e.g., Ik ne willen da nie doen, "I do not want to do that") and in some villages in the central Netherlands such as Garderen, it takes a different form than that found in Afrikaans. In Belgian Dutch dialects, however, there are still some widely used expressions like nooit niet ("never not") for "never".
Similar to some dialectal English, Bavarian employs both single and double negation, with the latter denoting special emphasis. For example, compare the Bavarian Des hob i no nia ned g'hört ("This have I yet never not heard") with the standard German "Das habe ich noch nie gehört". The German emphatic "niemals!" (roughly "never ever") corresponds to Bavarian "(går) nia ned" or even "nie nicht" in Standard German pronunciation.
A few examples would be:
- איך האב קיינמאל נישט געזאגט ("I never didn't say")
- איך האב נישט קיין מורא פאר קיינעם ניט "I have no fear of no one not")
- It is common to add נישט ("not") after the Yiddish word גארנישט ("nothing"), i.e. איך האב גארנישט נישט געזאגט ("I have said nothing")
Latin and Romance languages
While in Latin a second negative word appearing along with non turns the meaning into a positive one: ullus means "any", nullus means "no", non...nullus (nonnullus) means "some". In the same way, umquam means "ever", numquam means "never", non...numquam (nonnumquam) means "sometimes", in many Romance languages a second term indicated a negative is required.
In French, the usual way to express negation is to employ two negatives, e.g. ne [verb] pas, ne [verb] plus, or ne [verb] jamais, as in the sentences "Je ne sais pas" ("I do not know"), "Il n'y a plus de baguettes" ("There aren't any more baguettes"), and "On ne sait jamais" ("one never knows"). The second term was originally an emphatic; pas, for example, derives from the Latin passus, meaning "step", so that French Je ne marche pas and Catalan No camino pas originally meant "I will not walk a single step." This initial usage spread so thoroughly that it became a necessary element of any negation in the modern French language and that, in fact, in contemporary French, the original actual negative ne is mostly left away in favour of pas, as in Je sais pas "I don't know". In Northern Catalan, no may be omitted in colloquial language, and Occitan, which uses non only as a short answer to questions. In Venetian, the double negation no ... mìa can likewise lose the first particle and rely only on the second: magno mìa ("I eat not") and vegno mìa ("I come not"). These exemplify Jespersen's cycle.
Italian, Portuguese and Romanian languages usually employ doubled negative correlatives. Portuguese Não vejo nada, Romanian Nu văd nimic and Italian Non vedo niente ("I do not see nothing") are used to express "No, I do not see anything". In Italian, a second following negative particle non turns the phrase into a positive one, but with a slightly different meaning. For instance, while both Voglio mangiare ("I want to eat") and Non voglio non mangiare ("I don't want not to eat") mean "I want to eat", the latter phrase more precisely means "I'd prefer to eat".
Other Romance languages employ double negatives less regularly. In Asturian, an extra negative particle is used with negative adverbs: Yo nunca nun lu viera ("I had not never seen him") means "I have never seen him" and A mi tampoco nun me presta ("I neither do not like it") means "I do not like it either". Standard Catalan and Galician also used to possess a tendency to double no with other negatives, so Jo tampoc no l'he vista or Eu tampouco non a vira, respectively ("I neither have not seen her") meant "I have not seen her either". That practice is dying out.
In 1974, Italy held a referendum on whether to repeal a recent law that allowed divorce. Voters were said to have been confused in that in order to support divorce, they needed to vote 'no' on the referendum which was worded so that 'yes' would support repeal. And to reframe the fundamental underlying issue as being support/non-support of the continuation of marriage, then the vote was structured as a triple negative (with divorce as the negation of the continuation of marriage being the first negative). This referendum was defeated, and without this confusion, it was said that it would have been defeated more decisively.
In spoken Welsh, the word ddim (not) often occurs with a prefixed or mutated verb form that is negative in meaning: Dydy hi ddim yma (word-for-word, "Not-is she not here") expresses "She is not here" and Chaiff Aled ddim mynd (word-for-word, "Not-will-get Aled not go") expresses "Aled is not allowed to go".
Negative correlatives can also occur with already negative verb forms. In literary Welsh, the mutated verb form is caused by an initial negative particle, ni or nid. The particle is usually omitted in speech but the mutation remains: [Ni] wyddai neb (word-for-word, "[Not] not-knew nobody") means "Nobody knew" and [Ni] chaiff Aled fawr o bres (word-for-word, "[Not] not-will-get Aled lots of money") means "Aled will not get much money". This is not usually regarded as three negative markers, however, because the negative mutation is really just an effect of the initial particle on the following word.
Doubled negatives are perfectly correct in Ancient Greek. With few exceptions, a simple negative (οὐ or μή) following another negative (for example, οὐδείς, no one) results in an affirmation: οὐδείς οὐκ ἔπασχε τι ("No one was not suffering") means more simply "Everyone was suffering". Meanwhile, a compound negative following a negative strengthens the negation: μὴ θορυβήσῃ μηδείς ("Do not permit no one to raise an uproar") means "Let not a single one among them raise an uproar".
Those constructions apply only when the negatives all refer to the same word or expression. Otherwise, the negatives simply work independently of one another: οὐ διὰ τὸ μὴ ἀκοντίζειν οὐκ ἔβαλον αὐτόν means "It was not on account of their not throwing that they did not hit him", and one should not blame them for not trying.
In Modern Greek, negative concord is standard and more commonly used. For example, the sentence 'You (pl.) will not find anything' can be said in two ways: 'Δε θα βρείτε τίποτα' ('Not will find nothing') is more common than 'Δε θα βρείτε κάτι' ('Not will find something'). It depends simply on the mood of the speaker, and the latter being is considered slightly more polite. An exception to that rule is the (archaic) pronoun ουδείς, also meaning "no one", which does not allow negation of the verb that it governs.
In Slavic languages other than Slavonic, multiple negatives are grammatically correct ways to express negation, and a single negative is often incorrect. In complex sentences, every part that could be grammatically negated should be negative. For example, in the Serbo-Croatian, Ni(t)ko nikad(a) nigd(j)e ništa nije uradio ("Nobody never did not do nothing nowhere") means "Nobody has ever done anything, anywhere", and Nikad nisam tamo išao/išla ("Never I did not go there") means "I have never been there". In Czech it is also common to use three or more negations. For example, Nikdy jsem nikde nikoho neviděl ("I have not never seen no one nowhere"). In Russian, "I know nothing" is я ничего не знаю (ya nichevo nye znayu), lit. "I nothing don't know."
A single negation, while syntactically correct, may result in a very unusual meaning or make no sense at all. Saying "I saw nobody" in Polish (Widziałem nikogo) instead of the more usual "I did not see nobody" (Nikogo nie widziałem) might mean "I saw an instance of nobody" or "I saw Mr. Nobody" but it would not have its plain English meaning. Likewise, in Slovenian, saying "I do not know anyone" (Ne poznam kogarkoli) in place of "I do not know no one" (Ne poznam nikogar) has the connotation "I do not know just anyone": I know someone important or special.
As with most synthetic satem languages double negative is mandatory in Latvian and Lithuanian. Furthermore, all verbs and indefinite pronouns in a given statement must be negated, so it could be said that multiple negative is mandatory in Latvian.
For instance, a statement "I have not ever owed anything to anyone" would be rendered as es nekad nevienam neko neesmu bijis parādā. The only alternative would be using a negating subordinate clause and subjunctive in the main clause, which could be approximated in English as "there has not ever been an instance that I would have owed anything to anyone" (nav bijis tā, ka es kādreiz būtu kādam bijis kaut ko parādā), where negative pronouns (nekad, neviens, nekas) are replaced by indefinite pronouns (kādreiz, kāds, kaut kas) more in line with the English "ever, any" indefinite pronoun structures.
Double or multiple negatives are grammatically required in Hungarian with negative pronouns: Nincs semmim (word for word: "[doesn't-exists] [nothing-of-mine]", and translates literally as "I do not have nothing") means "I do not have anything". Negative pronouns are constructed by means of adding the prefixes se-, sem-, and sen- to interrogative pronouns.
Something superficially resembling double negation is required also in Finnish, which uses the auxiliary verb ei to express negation. Negative pronouns are constructed by adding one of the suffixes -an, -än, -kaan, or -kään to interrogative pronouns: Kukaan ei soittanut minulle means "No one called me". These suffices are, however, never used alone, but always in connection with ei. This phenomenon is commonplace in Finnish, where many words have alternatives that are required in negative expressions, for example edes for jopa ("even"), as in jopa niin paljon meaning "even so much", and ei edes niin paljoa meaning "not even so much".
Negative verb forms are grammatically required in Turkish phrases with negative pronouns or adverbs that impart a negative meaning on the whole phrase. For example, Hiçbir şeyim yok (literally, word for word, "Not-one thing-of-mine exists-not") means "I don't have anything". Likewise, Asla memnun değilim (literally, "Never satisfied not-I-am") means "I'm never satisfied".
Japanese employs litotes to phrase ideas in a more indirect and polite manner. Thus, one can indicate necessity by emphasizing that not doing something would not be proper. For instance, しなければならない (shinakereba naranai, "must") literally means "not doing [it] would not be proper". しなければいけません (shinakereba ikemasen, also "must") similarly means "not doing [it] cannot go forward".
Of course, indirectness can also be employed to put an edge on one's rudeness as well. "He has studied Japanese, so he should be able to write kanji" can be phrased 彼は日本語を勉強したから漢字で書けないわけがありません (kare wa nihongo o benkyō shita kara kanji de kakenai wake ga arimasen), there is a rather harsher idea: "As he has studied Japanese, the reasoning that he cannot write Kanji does not exist".
Mandarin Chinese also employs litotes in a like manner. One common construction is 不得不 (Pinyin: bùdébù, "cannot not"), which is used to express (or feign) a necessity more regretful and polite than that expressed by 必须 (bìxū, "must"). Compared with "我必须走" (Wǒ bìxū zǒu, "I must go"), "我不得不走" (Wǒ bùdébù zǒu, "I cannot not go") tries to emphasize that the situation is out of the speaker's hands and that the speaker has no choice in the matter: "Unfortunately, I have got to go". Similarly, "没有人不知道" (Méiyǒu rén bù zhīdào, "There is not a person who does not know") is a more emphatic way to express "Everyone knows".
Double negatives nearly always resolve to a positive meaning even in colloquial speech, while triple negatives resolve to a negative meaning. For example, "我不相信没人不来" (Wǒ bù xiāngxìn méi rén bù lái, "I do not believe no one will not come") means "I do not think everyone will come". However, triple or multiple negatives are considered obscure and are typically avoided.
History of languages
Many languages, including all living Germanic languages, French, Welsh and some Berber and Arabic dialects, have gone through a process known as Jespersen's cycle, where an original negative particle is replaced by another, passing through an intermediate stage employing two particles (e.g. Old French jeo ne dis → Modern Standard French je ne dis pas → Modern Colloquial French je dis pas "I don't say").
In many cases, the original sense of the new negative particle is not negative per se (thus in French pas "step", originally "not a step" = "not a bit"), but in Germanic languages, such as English and German the intermediate stage was a case of double negation, as the current negatives not and nicht in these languages originally meant "nothing": e.g. Old English ic ne seah "I didn't see" >> Middle English I ne saugh nawiht, lit. "I didn't see nothing" >> Early Modern English I saw not.
A similar development to a circumfix from double negation can be seen in non-Indo-European languages, too: for example, in Maltese, kiel "he ate" is negated as ma kielx "he did not eat", where the verb is preceded by a negative particle ma- "not" and followed by the particle -x, which was originally a shortened form of xejn "nothing" - thus, "he didn't eat nothing".
- Affirmative and negative
- Agreement (linguistics)
- Jespersen's cycle
- List of common English usage misconceptions
- Redundancy (linguistics)
- Wouden, Ton van der. Negative Contexts: Collocation, Polarity and Multiple Negation. Routledge. p. 243. ISBN 9781134773336.
- Fromkin, Victoria; Rodman, Robert; Hyams, Nina (2002). An Introduction to Language, Seventh Edition. Heinle. p. 15. ISBN 0-15-508481-X.
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- See the article regarding Romance languages explaining this form of double negation.
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- Kallel 2011, pp. 130–131.
- A Grammar of Afrikaans, Bruce C. Donaldson, Walter de Gruyter, 1993, p. 404. Books.google.co.uk. Retrieved 2013-08-10.
- There are literary cases in which "ne" can be used without "pas"; many of these are traditional phrases stemming from a time before the emphatic became an essential part of negation.
- In Italian a simple–negative phrase, Non vedo alcunché ("I don't see anything"), is also possible.
- Borsley, Robert; Tallerman, M; Willis, D (2007). "7. Syntax and mutation". The Syntax of Welsh. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-83630-2.
- Kastovsky, Dieter. 1991. Historical English syntax. p. 452
- Van Gelderen, Elly. 2006. A history of the English language. p. 130
- "Grazio Falzon. Basic Maltese Grammar". Aboutmalta.com. Retrieved 2013-08-10.
- Kallel, Amel (2011). The Loss of Negative Concord in Standard English: A Case of Lexical Reanalysis. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4438-2815-4.