# I've always supported the double negative rule in the English language, but why?

Asked by SeaTurtle (1179) March 15th, 2011

I get really annoyed when I hear people unknowingly using double-negatives and I have been taught to think that two negatives resolve to a positive but I have just asked myself “where is the logic in this’? as mathematically (-1)+(-1)=(-2) ?
Scientifically speaking a double negative remains a negative.

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Language isn’t logic or math and there’s no reason to expect it to behave like logic or math. The fact is that many languages use double negatives to reinforce each other (also called negative concord), including some dialects of English. It was a feature of all English in the 1300s and earlier.

morphail (4955)

This reminds me…

An English professor was describing to a class during a lecture how the double negative, at least in modern English, is a positive. He gave several examples. He concluded the lecture with the statement: “Although a double negative in English is a positive, there is no corollary. A double positive is a reinforced positive, and not a negative.”

From the back of the class came a muttered, “Yeah, right.”

WasCy (10100)

Double negatives are a no-no, but that doesn’t mean they cannot be used properly.

@WasCy Oh no! That’s not an English story at all! It’s a philosophy story. The eminent Oxford philosopher of language J.L. Austin was giving a lecture at Columbia in the 1950s. At one point, he claimed that while many languages resolve a double negative into a positive (using the example “he is not unlike his sister”), no language employs a double positive to make a negative. The famously witty Sidney Morgenbesser then waved his arm dismissively and called from the audience: “Yeah, yeah.”

Morgenbesser’s one-liners are legendary among philosophers.

SavoirFaire (26771)

Don’t think of it as additive; think of it as multiplicative. (-1)(-1)=+1, (+1)(+1)=+1.

zenvelo (35626)

Forget about using math to understand a double negative in the English language. All you have to do is analyze the meaning of each word. Sadly it seems that people sometimes forget that words have meanings and just talk trash (like ebonics).

gondwanalon (19456)

- -1 = +1

Mariah (25863)

@SavoirFaire , Thank you for the Morgenbesser info.

SeaTurtle (1179)

@Mariah , That makes no mathematical sense to me, do you mean (-1) – (-1) = 0 ?
That is a triple negative that equates to a neutral IMO.

SeaTurtle (1179)

My seventh grade teacher explained it this way:

If something good ( + ) happens ( * ) to a good guy ( + ), that’s ( = ) good ( + ).

If something good ( + ) happens ( * ) to a bad guy ( – ), that’s ( = ) bad ( – ).

If something bad ( – ) happens ( * ) to a bad guy ( – ), that’s ( = ) good ( + ).

If something good ( bad ) happens ( * ) to a good guy ( + ), that’s ( = ) bad ( – ).

bob_ (19700)

@SeaTurtle Nope, I mean that negative negative one is positive one. It’s a different way of saying (-1)*(-1) = +1.

Or, if you study logic, you learn that ~T (not true) = F and ~~T (not not true) = T.

Mariah (25863)

@Mariah , Ok I understand your meaning. So linguistically I was thinking of a double negative as being additive but if you consider it to be multiplicative then it makes logical sense.

@bob_ , nice definition.

SeaTurtle (1179)

Cool now I can continue to justify my dislike of double negatives. Thanks all :)

SeaTurtle (1179)

Wait, damn it, the last line should be:

If something bad ( – ) happens ( * ) to a good guy ( + ), that’s ( = ) bad ( – ).

bob_ (19700)

@bob_ lol, thats what you said, I got it. :)

@Mariah , had a lurk on your flickr page, ha witty smart and definitely not a philistine but just to be pedantic,,, the modern Greek μ is pronounced ‘mee’ not ‘moo’.

SeaTurtle (1179)

@SeaTurtle I thought it was pronounced “mew” – that’s how teachers have pronounced it. Hmm, thanks!

Mariah (25863)

Well dang, some googling indicates that you’re right. There goes that joke!

Mariah (25863)