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01/19/2018

Double negation in the English language

Introduction

Negation is one of the major linguistic areas in theoretical grammar. Many grammarians interested in negative polarity are fully aware that there are still unresolved issues to be explored, such as negative concord. Standard English generally allows only one negative in the same clause. Negative concord, sometimes also called double negation or multiple negation, involves instances where two or more negative morphemes co-occur. This topic explored such scholars as Jespersen, Poldauf, Anderwald, Horn, Tottie and others.

Subject of inquiry in my paper is the notion of double negation.

Analysis of scientific literature is one of the main methods used in the research.

 

Double negation in the History of English

Nowadays Standard English does not permit negative concord today. Historically, however, in all West Germanic languages this construction was the rule.

For English, it has been suggested that negative concord was usual construction until at least Middle English times, and some examples from different periods are given in (1), (2):

Old English

ne nan neat nyste nᴂnne andan ne nᴂnne ege to ethrum

(Alfred, Boethius, 102.7)

not no neat NEG-knew no malice nor no fear of another

‘cattle knew no malice or fear of another’

Middle English

He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde / In al his lyf unto no maner wight (Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, “General Prologue”, A. 70-71)

‘He never said anything rude / in all his life to any sort of person’

Chaucer made extensive use of double negatives in his poetry, sometimes even using triple negatives. A classic example of a double negative used by a well-educated man in the 1600s was Oliver Cromwell’s letter, dated July 5, 1644, to his brother-in-law, Valentine Walton, informing him of the death of Walton’s son at the battle of Marston Moor, quoting the boy’s last words:

‘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.’

This particular letter of Cromwell’s has often been reprinted, but with the “not … no” double negative amended to read “not … any”.

Dating the decline of negative concord is more difficult. The accepted opinion used to point towards early Modern English as the turning point. Especially with the rise of prescriptive grammars based on Latin, the use of several negatives in a sentence was explicitly frowned upon as illogical and incorrect. By the end of seventeenth century, the emerging Standard English did not permit negative concord any longer, but largely followed the system that is still in place today, namely that only any-quantifiers can occur inside the scope of the negator for an unmarked negative reading. This sentence negation can be effected by not or n’t, but also by an inherently negative quantifier like nobody, nothing etc., and some examples of this new standard negation are given in (3), (4):

I have not left anybody behind.

There’s never anywhere to move forward to.

The interesting question that posed itself was to investigate whether negative concord continues to be used in present-day spoken English, ranging from the standard to a very non-standard end, and to what degree.

Today, the double negative is often considered the mark of an uneducated speaker, but it used to be quite common in English. In more recent times, more publicised examples of double negatives appear in Eastenders, particularly with the character Dot Branning, who sometimes uses triple negatives as well (e.g. ‘I ain’t never ‘eard of no licence). However, this is an obvious example of Estuary English or Mockney, as June Brown (who plays her) speaks with a much more posh accent.

 

The notion of Double negative

A double negative occurs when two forms of negation are used in the same sentence. In some languages (or varieties of a language,) negative forms are consistently used throughout the sentence to express a single negation. In other languages, a double negative is used to negate a negation, and therefore, it resolves to a positive. In the former case, triple and quadruple negation can also be seen, which leads to the terms multiple negation or negative concord.

Non-standard Modern English allows two or more negatives in the same clause:

Double negation They didn’t say nothing.

Corrected They said nothing.

They didn’t say anything.

Triple negation Nobody never believes nothing I say.

Nobody ever believes anything I say.

There exist two types of double negative in English: Double negative resolving to a negative and Double negative resolving to a positive.

 

Double negative resolving to negative

Although they are not used in Standard English, double negatives are used in various American English dialects, including African American Vernacular English, and in the East London Cockney and East Anglian dialects.

Often double negatives are incorrect grammatical usages, switching words like “any” for “no,” “anything” for “nothing,” and “anywhere” for “nowhere.” This may be due to a mis-hearing, a mis-pronunciation, or a simplification of the word “any,” and substituting “no” for it.

In the film Mary Poppins, Dick Van Dyke uses a double negative when he says:

If you don’t want to go nowhere

A double negative is also famously used in the first two lines of the song “Another Brick in the Wall (part II)” included in the album The Wall by Pink Floyd, sung by schoolchildren

We don’t need no education

We don’t need no thought control

Other examples of double negatives include:

I ain’t got nobody

Don’t nobody go to the store

I can’t hardly wait

or in the Faithless song “Insomnia”

I can’t get no sleep

or the “stinking badges” from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Badges? [pause] We ain’t got no badges.

or the two examples in the advice of Walt Disney’s Thumper to Bambi

If you can’t say nuthin’ nice, don’t say nuthin’ at all!

Double negative also refers to even more than two negatives, like:

And don’t nobody buy nothing

This is used in the film Chaos staring Jason Statham.

 

Double negation resolving to a positive

Standard English allows Double negation when the two negatives combine to make a positive.

The double-negatives-make-a-positive rule was first introduced in English when Bishop Robert Lowth wrote A Short Introduction to English Grammar with Critical Notes in 1762.

 

Negative + Negative = Positive
Negative + Positive = Negative

 

The following list contains words that are regarded as negative. If you use them in your sentences once, your statements will be negative.

no

not

none

nothing

nowhere

neither

nobody

no one

hardly

scarcely

barely

Using the rule explained above in the box and the list of negative words given, study the following examples:

Sentence Meaning
Positive Construction

negative + negative

I hardly have none. I have some.
I don’t want nothing. I want something.
Negative Construction

negative + positive

I hardly have any. I have few.
I don’t want anything. I want nothing.

 

On some occasions, mostly when speaking, the use of double negatives is accepted.

In literature, denying a negation is known as the trope of litotes. A litotes is a rhetorical device which uses double negation to emphasize a statement. By denying its opposite, the double negation cancels itself out and resolves to a positive. The effect of this can differ depending on context.

For instance, “I don’t disagree” could be said to mean “I certainly agree” if stated in an affirmative manner. However, if stated in a cautious manner, “I don’t disagree” can also be used to mean “You may be right, although I am not sure,” or “There is no mistake in what you say, but there is more to it than that.”

Similarly, the phrase “Mr. Jones was not incompetent” may be used to mean either “Mr. Jones was very competent” or “Mr. Jones was competent, but not brilliantly so.”

This device can also be used to humorous effect; for example, in the TV show The Simpsons, Homer Simpson says in one episode (“Missionary: Impossible”), “I’m not licking toads”, humorously conveying to the audience that he had indeed been licking toads.

 

Conclusion

In the paper we analyzed the notion of Double negation diachronically and synchronically and found out that double negation was frequently used in Old English and Middle English but in Modern English it is a kind of mistake, and it is not used in Standard English. Though, exist two cases when Double Negation can be used in Standard English: 1). Double negation is used as a trope – litotes; 2). Double negation resolves to positive.