What’s a double negative?
A double negative is when two negative words or constructions are used within a single clause. Sentences with double negatives are not grammatically correct . . . and they’re confusing. That’s because double negatives cancel each other out and make a positive. So, when you use a double negative it ends up being the exact opposite of what you mean. You’ll write a stronger sentence when you put statements in a positive form.
It’s easy to fall into a double-negative trap. Here’s how to recognize and side step them.
What are negative nouns?
If you use a negative noun and a negative verb, you have a double negative. Negative nouns are words such as nowhere, nothing, nobody, and no one. Here are some examples of ways to get rid of negative nouns.
I don’t want nothing can change to I don’t want anything.
- I don’t want nothing literally means “I want something.”
She’s not going nowhere can change to She’s not going anywhere.
- She’s not going nowhere literally means “she’s going somewhere.”
He never said he saw no one can change to He never saw anyone.
- He never said he saw no one literally means “he saw someone.”
What is a negative modifier?
A modifier is a word that changes, clarifies, qualifies, or limits another word. A double negative is formed by adding a negative to the verb and a negative modifier to the noun (or the object of the verb).
For example: We don’t have no extra chairs.
- Here, no is a negative modifier and it isn’t needed.
Instead, you could say “We don’t have any extra chairs.”
- The modifier is now any and it’s not negative.
How would you rewrite the sentence: I didn’t want to live nowhere else? (Hint: The modifier is no again.)
What is a negative adverb?
Negative adverbs are sneaky negative modifiers because they aren’t “no” words. Negative adverbs are words like barely, seldom, hardly, rarely, and scarcely. Even though they don’t have “no,” they still have a negative connotation.
Take, for example, the sentence: He can’t hardly wait for the game to begin. The implied meaning is “he can hardly wait for the game to begin,” (and this would be the correct way to write this sentence too!) The literal meaning is “he can wait for the game.”
Some sneaky double negatives . . .
A common double negative (that doesn’t look like one) is the phrase cannot help but. What’s wrong with it? The “not” inside the word cannot and the “but” both express negative ideas.
The solution? Use one or the other, just not both together.
Occasionally, a double negative can be used in a subtle and indirect way to express a positive idea. A litotes is “a figure of speech that uses understatement to emphasize a point by stating a negative to further affirm a positive,” and they often incorporate double negatives for this effect.
You might, for example, say: “I don’t regret not going to my high-school reunion,” which really means “I’m really glad I didn’t go to the reunion.”
Double negatives are common in other languages. In fact, the English language used them too until 1762 when Bishop Robert Lowth wrote in A Short Introduction to English Grammar with Critical Notes that they were no longer acceptable.
A little fun: Double negatives in songs
The most well know double-negative song is the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” released in 1965. And, Pink Floyd’s 1979 rock opera The Wall featured these lyrics in the song “Another Brick in the Wall”:
“We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control”
Then, there’s Marvin Gaye’s rendition of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and Bill Wither’s “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone.” And, Elvis Presley, breaks all the rules with his iconic 1952 song “Hound Dog” that goes like this:
“You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog”
“Hound Dog” is one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll,” but it certainly didn’t set a good example for proper grammar.