The Negative Canon: Double Negatives – An Absolute No-No?

This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.

Nowher so bisy a man as he ther nas,
And yet he semed bisier than he was.

That’s from Chaucer’s description of the Sergeant of Law in the ‘Canterbury Tales’. See anything wrong with it? Perhaps you will in translation: ‘There wasn’t nowhere a man so busy’ (nas was the negative of was in Middle English). Taking the mathematical approach favoured by the critics of double negation, it would mean: ‘There was everywhere a man just as busy’. The following line shows clearly that that is not the intended meaning. Similarly, he writes of the Prioress:

Wel koude she carie a morsel, and wel kepe
That no drope ne fille upon hir brist

The mathematical approach would tell us that she made sure that a drop DID fall on her breast, because in translation it reads ‘She knew how to take a little piece of food, and see to it that no drop didn’t fall on her breast.’ We know from the rest of the description of the Prioress that it cannot possibly bear that meaning.

Just as no one can seriously believe that the mathematical readings are what Chaucer intended, so no one can seriously believe that Shakespeare intended us to understand that in ‘Twelfth Night’ the cross-dressing Viola means that a woman WOULD be mistress of her heart when she says:

I have one heart, one bosom, and one truth.
And that no woman has, nor never none
Shall be mistress of it, save I alone.

Before English became fully standardised an increasing number of negatives strengthened the force of the negation. There was no question of one negative cancelling another, and that is still the case in nonstandard dialects, as Mick Jagger showed us when he sang that he couldn’t get no satisfaction. As Peter Trudgill writes in his paper ‘Standard English: What It Isn’t’:

Standard English lacks multiple negation, so that no choice is available between I don’t want none, which is not possible, and I don’t want any. Most nonstandard dialects of English around the world permit multiple negation.

Those who regard double negatives as illogical should try telling that to the French. In French, it is single negation that is nonstandard. The standard requires the negative ne to be followed after the verb by the negative pas, or by other negatives such as rien (nothing) or nul (not any, none).

‘Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage’ (MWDEU) repeats Otto Jespersen’s point that negation in English is often marked, at least in speech, by the unstressed –n’t (and was marked in the past by the particle ne). This may often be felt inadequate, and ‘hence, there has long been a tendency to strengthen the negative idea by adding more negative elements to the sentence.’ In tracing the history of objections to double negation, MWDEU gives due credit to Bishop Lowth, who stated firmly in ‘A Short Introduction to English Grammar’:

Two negatives in English destroy one another, or are equivalent to an affirmative . . .

As examples of what Lowth calls ‘a relique of the ancient style, abounding with negatives; which is now grown wholly obsolete’ he, too, quotes from Shakespeare and Chaucer.

Lowth’s proscription was reinforced by later grammarians, but, according to MWDEU, double negation was disappearing from literature anyway by the time Lowth was writing. MWDEU’s further comment is worth quoting in full:

What was happening was that their sphere of use was contracting; they were still available but were restricted to familiar use – conversation and letters. And, since old forms persist the longest among the least educated, the double negative became generally associated with the speech of the unlettered. In modern use, the double negative is widely perceived as a rustic and uneducated form, and is indeed common in the speech of less educated people.

There are two important points here. The first is that it is the least educated who preserve the older forms of the language. Those who vaunt their conservative tastes might like to reflect on that. The second is that the uneducated are often the underprivileged and the underprivileged tend to attract the scorn of those more fortunate. The language they use is an easy target, but the language of the underprivileged is just as linguistically valid as all other varieties.

Jenny Cheshire, at the time Professor of Linguistics at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London, elaborates this point in her chapter entitled ‘Double Negatives Are Illogical’ in that excellent book ‘Language Myths’, edited by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill. She reports that, prompted by an invitation from the BBC in 1986, listeners to a Radio 4 programme in 1986 included double negatives among their top ten complaints about grammatical usage. British readers might not be surprised to hear of the suffering endured by the Radio 4 listeners who responded. (For non-British readers, BBC Radio 4 listeners, and I am of their number, are typically middle class and middle aged.) They said double negatives ’made their blood boil’, ‘gave a pain in the ear’, ‘made them shudder’ and ‘appalled’ them. I imagine similar responses would be given today.

Towards the end of the chapter, Cheshire comments that

. . . double negatives of the I don’t want nothing type, which nowadays are not used by politicians, potential poet laureates or scientists, but by Harlem youths, London East Enders and other groups in the community whose ancestors escaped the demands of polite society and the prescriptions of grammarians. These double negatives represent the survival of along-established pattern of negation in English and a natural pattern of negation in language generally. They might be recognized in this way if our greatest playwrights still used them. But as it is, they are stigmatized.

That means, in MWDEU’s words, that:

. . . it is not a prestige form; you are not likely to impress the boss, the teacher, or the job interviewer by using double negatives . . . You just have to pick your occasions.

Indeed. The skill in using language lies not in blindly following a set of arbitrary prescriptions, but in being sensitive to what grammatical constructions, what vocabulary, and even what accent, are appropriate at a particular time, in a particular place and for a particular purpose.

I have said nothing here about the use of the double negative as what MWDEU calls a weak affirmative, as in a not unpleasant day’. There is something to be said about it, but that use is not, I think, a candidate for inclusion in the Negative Canon. The other is.


Filed under The Negative Canon

20 responses to “The Negative Canon: Double Negatives – An Absolute No-No?

  1. Another Chaucer line, which I love:
    He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde
    In al his lyf unto no maner wight.
    He was a verray, parfit gentil knyght.

    Four! Four negatives, not just two.

    When someone tries the math angle to condemn negative concord, I ask them how they like Prissy’s “I don’t know nothing about birthing no babies”. That’s three, so it must be okay, right? (But it never is.)

    One big problem with using the term “double negative” for negative concord is that it then makes people shy away not only from genuine double negatives (that is, those meant as a rhetorical tool to express either a weak or strong positive) such as “he was not unkind” or “I can’t not go”, which differ from negative concord in that one of the negative words is directly modifying the other ; but also from sentences that are composed of two clauses, each negative, such as one Dick Cavett once wrote in a NY Times op-ed: “Doesn’t never announcing a date allow them to return to their hammocks and let G.I. Joe continue to absorb the bullets?”

    A commenter wrote “Shouldn’t it have read “Never announcing a date allows them to return . .” rather than the awkward “Doesn’t never announcing . . .”, equivalent to saying “Does not never”? Can Cavett really defend using “Doesn’t never”?” The commenter clearly saw the sequence of words and reacted, though Cavett’s perfectly Standard question was Doesn’t X allow Y, with X being negative too, rather than “He doesn’t never do X”.

    Another example I read recently was a character in a novel stubbornly insisting that “Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about” was bad grammar because it was a “double negative”. I’m pretty sure this was the author’s opinion as well.


    • I was going to use that one as well, but it got too complicated to explain.

      The other kind of double negative has its place. ‘A not unpleasant day’ says something different from ‘a pleasant day’. But I find that sentences like the one you quote place too heavy a demand on the reader. Language Log sometimes has posts about the use of negatives that end up saying the opposite of what the writer intended.


  2. Jonathan Hammond

    An interesting history of the form, Barrie. Thank you. I had no idea OE had negatives of that sort (you mention French, and I am also well aware that they are standard in Spanish). I had also oftentimes wondered how the multiple negative came to be proscribed in StE.

    But you go further, taking up the point that really annoys me. I cringe when I see people gloating that they ‘judge’ others who use non-standard forms. And the multiple negative often comes in for particular criticism. This is classism of a very nasty sort, in my book.


    • I believe Russian uses double negatives in the same way.

      Yes, many judgements that purport to be linguistic judgements are in reality social judgements.


      • Russian absolutely does, though it has a slightly different form for the “reinforcing” ones. “Ya ne mogu ne skazat komu” is “I can’t not tell somebody= I can’t help but tell somebody”, while “Ya ne mogu skazat nikomu” is “I can’t tell nobody = I can’t tell anybody.”


  3. No. It has fewer than English, probably, and they get stigmatized as substandard rather than nonstandard, so they rarely get written, but they do exist. Educated natives like to pretend they’re just “bad Russian”. They have distinct phonology and vocabulary -many of them are more like Ukrainian or Belarusian, particularly in not having the South Slavic Old Church Slavonic elements so important in Modern Standard Russian – and there are syntactic differences as well. English Wikipedia has a cursory page on them; Russian Wikipedia has a much more developed one.


  4. Getting this via a link would be better than emails.  Do you do that? 

      John R. Avila, DDS Facebook ID = John Avila DDS Twitter ID = MichiganCityDDS

    >________________________________ > From: Caxton >To: >Sent: Thursday, August 15, 2013 1:58 AM >Subject: [New post] The Negative Canon: Double Negatives – An Absolute No-No? > > > > >Barrie posted: “Nowher so bisy a man as he ther nas, And yet he semed bisier than he was. That’s from Chaucer’s description of the Sergeant of Law in the ‘Canterbury Tales’. See anything wrong with it? Perhaps you will in translation: ‘There wasn’t nowhere a man so bus” >


  5. Of course, double negatives exist in English dialects, and existed in older English. And just to add the list of languages, they also exist in Polish – ‘Nigdy nie powiedziałem nikomu’ – that’s three, literally – ‘I never not told nobody’. In fact I wonder if single negatives aren’t in the minority.

    But surely, there is no real controversy over this in Standard English, unlike your other entries in the Negative Canon. Doesn’t the power of that Stones song lie in the fact that everyone accepts this is not Standard English, even those who use it?


  6. Many who use it wouldn’t know, or care, whether it was standard or not.


  7. That seems rather a sweeping statement. They may not have heard of the term ‘Standard English’, but I’m sure that part of the appeal of ‘Can’t get no Satisfaction’ lay in the fact that it ‘broke the rules’.


  8. In that one instance, yes. But for many it must be a normal construction, passing unremarked by both speaker and listener.


    • I’m not so sure. Many people in Britain speak with two dialects, one with their friends and family, and a more standard one when they feel it is expected. Or the other way round. My sister’s kids quickly learnt that their RP Standard English was not the ideal language for the school playground at their local school and became more or less bilingual.

      But that wasn’t really my original point. All your other entries in the Negative Canon, like singular they, ‘who’ for ‘whom’, ‘it’s me’, ‘there’s two men to see you’ are to a greater or lesser extent acceptable in EFL teaching, for example, although some of them certainly wouldn’t be actively taught, and we might warn students that some are pretty informal. And I can’t think of an example of any of the rest of your canon where, if a student came out with it, I would feel the need to ‘correct’ them. But with double negatives it’s a different story, and I would be being remiss in my job if I didn’t correct them. It seems to me that this is qualitatively different from the rest.


      • I’m sure that’s right. Standard English doesn’t allow double negatives, and Standard English is what is taught in EFL.

        The concept of the Negative Canon clearly needs more work, but for now I’m using it as a catch-all term for those features of English that are fequently the target of vociferous, but mostly ill-informed, criticism.


  9. I believe that the ban on double negatives in Standard English arose because they were banned in Classical Latin, which was itself an artificial language variety — the evidence of the Romance languages is that Vulgar Latin had negative concord.


  10. MWDEU suggests that that was the case: ”Lowth’s statement is not original with him – it is simply a rule of Latin grammar.’ As you say, of Classical Latin, which is an entirely literary language.


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