Legitimate use of Double Negatives

This one is weak… and I’m new, so… if that changes anything…


I can’t stand the use of double negatives, anywhere. What’s worse is that it seems to be more and more common because it sounds more “professional”.

When was obfuscating the point ever more professional?!

Case in point:

No offence to Pazu (after all, I only quoted you because yours was the first instance of it I found), but when I was reading his post, I had to mentally do a double-take, and re-read the sentence to make sure I was even reading it properly!

Is there a problem with saying that it is common for it to rain in Africa?

I’m thinking that it may be a by-product of today’s emphasis on reading and scanning pages for content quickly… to absorb as much information in as little time as possible. Perhaps… no… definitely, if I were to read at a slower pace, I wouldn’t have this problem.

So who’s in the wrong? Everyone else, for using double negatives, or me, for reading too quickly?

Can’t it be both? It’s a way of making your own statements less definitive but this kind of double negative contributes very little. I’ve used it myself, for sure, but it’s not un-lame.

To me, “not uncommon” does not mean the same thing as “common”. There’s a middle ground of frequency that is neither common nor uncommon, and “not uncommon” allows that middle ground.

But, with the first quoted example, “It doesn’t seem unreasonable to me for her to not want someone else poking around on it,” there are actually three negatives, which might be why it’s hard to understand on a first reading.

I think double negatives have their place. When a given word and its negated version seem to represent two points on a continuum, where points exist between, a double negative doesn’t necessarily become a positive. For example (and I think this is a rip-off of E.B. White, IIRC):

Compare these two sentences:

  1. She’s attractive.

  2. She’s not unattractive.

#2 is not equivalent to #1. Suppose one classes beauty from 1 to 10, 8+ being “attractive,” 3- being “unattractive,” and 4 through 7 being “plain.” #1 states that the woman in question is an 8 or higher. #2 states that the woman is a 4 or higher (and hints that more than likely she’s below 8) without putting the person in the awkward position of saying a woman isn’t attractive.

The type of example you gave is called litotes, and has been around for millennia. I don’t care whether you dislike every double negative, some of them have a rhetorical function.

This is a good literary use of double-negatives. In statements of fact about the rain in Africa, it’s filler.

Good call, though the rain example seems concerned with the commonness of rain, not the fact of rain/no rain. Since commonality might be on a continuum (in the original author’s work, at least), I’m not too keen on tossing out the OP’s second example. Rain being “not uncommon” might point to rain being a regular enough event such that rain isn’t a surprise when it happens, but that it isn’t enough to alleviate drought conditions. Perhaps.

I don’t disagree.

Perhaps you should talk the lawyers down off this wall before you berate the masses for emulating them…:wink:

ETA; Litotes, eh? I’m not averse to the idea…

The whole “rule” against “double-negatives” is not really a rule at all, and is part of a misguided idea that grammar is like algebra. It’s not. A double-negative does not make it a postive, it emphasises the negative.
Sure, sometimes a double-negative leads to clumsy sentence construction, but so can avoiding a double-negative at times.

The rule against double negatives is not about examples such as those in the OP (which do follow the rules of algebra or symbolic logic), but more about non-standard forms such as “I ain’t going nowhere,” which in more standard English would be “I’m not going anywhere.” In that non-standard form, the double negation is intended to emphasise the negative, not to convert it into a positive form.

See, my opinion here is that even if a double negative isn’t equivalent to a positive, it’s still a little bit lazy. If you think this woman is plain, say she’s plain! There are enough good adjectives that you shouldn’t have to twist “attractive” around until it looks like something out of Nineteen Eighty-Four just to express the idea of “plain.” The whole construction “not un-something” is starting to feel like a cliche whose time has come and gone.

Thanks for all of the responses!

I agree that there may be a time and a place for double negatives (in many of your examples, the “continuum” of a statement), so I may have been hasty in my initial statement of “all double negatives are useless”.

As for this example, I suppose it does depend on the context of the sentence. I merely pulled it out of my head when writing, but what if the context showed that it either rained or didn’t rain? A black and white division is where I think double negatives have no place. “Not uncommon” is the most prolific of the double negatives I’ve seen to date, and it irritates me every time I’ve read it, as I assume they are speaking in a black/white example.

As for those who replied in purposeful double negatives… I respectfully demand you all don’t not go to hell. :slight_smile:

But is it uncommon to bless the rain down in Africa?

Do I get to do the “Yay, my first Pitting!” cheer over this? :wink:

Although really, I don’t disagree.

my personal favorite is confusing the poor assholes in/from Texas :smiley:

They seem to love the whole “You aint from Texas, you aint shit”

They get soconfused when you agree :smiley:

I happen to be from Connecticut:p and the rest follows …

I never said I wouldn’t use double negatives.

I said I would use double negatives.

These are not equivalent statements.

I disagree with this thought. If I were to say “not unattractive,” I would be saying that a woman isn’t conventionally beautiful, but I think she has her charms. I emphatically don’t mean that she’s plain. I wouldn’t be lazy at all using that construction because it is the best way to get my thought across. Obviously, YMMV.

I have ever seen how this rhetorical practice can be confusing.

I think that everything SHOULD be like algebra. That way “silver” would rhyme with “purple”.

Which would be cool.