Double negatives make a positive! No, they don't!

To give an outlet to those who got sidetracked by grammar in the U-boat thread over in GQ.

Have at it!

Two of my favorite double negatives:

I ain’t even do nothin’. -used this regularly as a child
I ain’t be gotten no weapons. -Hollywood Shuffle

I think " No, they don’t!" isn’t a double negative, but two clauses joined by a comma.

Well, there’s the story about the professor who pointed out that sometimes a double negative strengthens the negative, and sometimes a double negative makes a positive, but a double positive never makes a negative.

“Yeah, right,” piped up a student from the back seats…

Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!

To [mis]quote the famous song: I ain’t got plenty of nuthin’…

The use of double negatives goes back to antiquity: the Latin nonnulli - literally, not none - is usually translated as some. I vaguely recall it in Attic Greek, and I expect it’s there in older languages too.

For a modern master orator using the double negative to devastating effect, watch this video.

There’s nothing wrong with using two negatives to mean a negative, if that’s how the grammar of the language works. It’s common in French, for example:

“Je ne suis pas une femme.” – “I am not a woman.”

“ne” and “pas” are both negative.

Double negatives certainly *can *make a positive, so to assert that they don’t is incorrect. It depends upon the situation. I’m speaking about English of course. The French example given above is the proper construction. I’m not sure it qualifies as a double negative, since you wouldn’t have a negative at all without both elements.

I can’t not go.

Meaning, I’m not allowed to not go. Or, I am going.

So a double negative can make a positive.


No quite: ‘ne’ and ‘pas’ are part of the same negative (similarly ‘ne’ and jamais’). It’s not a double negative. You may have spotted that ‘ne’ is sometimes omitted in speech and drawn the wrong conclusion.

Spanish then. Double negatives are standard there, as in No dije nada (literally “I didn’t say nothing.”)

An example I always trot out in this discussion:

The Family Ties theme song contains the following line:
“There ain’t no nothing we can’t love each other through”.

Here we have an example of a quadruple negative, that works out to a positive (“we can love each other through anything”), through three negatives reinforcing each other, and then being reversed by another negative. “There ain’t no nothing” means the same as “There ain’t nothing”, or “There is nothing”, so it’s “there’s nothing we can’t love each other through”, and then the “can’t” reverses the “nothing”.

Or, to put it mathematically, it’s something like ( (-1) + (-1) + (-1) ) * (-1), which is a positive value.

You know the Family Ties theme song?

Only that line of it. Back when I was a kid and it was still on, I was already nerdy enough to notice the interesting construction, and so remembered it.

There are many examples where a negative is actually an emphatic positive:
"Wow, isn’t that girl pretty?’
“Isn’t she!”

There are also examples where a sentence has three or more negatives and does indeed conform to the rule that a negative is intended if and only if the total number of negatives is an odd number. (Am I the only one that sometimes has to stop and actually count the negatives to understand the meaning of such a sentence?) An example, paraphrased, from a N.Y. Times editorial is the sentence:

In a court case brought by environmentalists against the coal mining industry the judge found that the defendant had failed to demonstrate the damage would not be irreversible.
Not counting “damage” this clause has four negatives (failed, not, ir-, -revers); thus it affirms the environmental damage.

I am not unwilling to concede that sometimes, especially in a formal register, a double negative can result in a net positive statement, but as fpr a universal rule, especially in regard to colloqual speech registers, I ain’t got nothin!

If he ain’t got nobody, and he ain’t so bad, he’s got a self-esteem problem.

I don’t disagree with you - but then again, I didn’t say it was.