Social Question

SeaTurtle's avatar

Does American English adhere to the double negative law?

Asked by SeaTurtle (1179points) April 20th, 2011

I hear so many U.S. Celebrities; news reporters; song writers and even politicians using double negatives. Does the same rule apply in the American version of English wherein a double negative is indeed a positive?

i.e. “I didn’t do nothing” = (I’ve done something)
“You ain’t heard nothin’ yet, folks!” = (You’ve heard something, folks)

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43 Answers

augustlan's avatar

Yes, but your second example is just a colloquialism. Not meant to be taken at face value.

JLeslie's avatar

Yes. But we are so full of Spanish speaking immigrants who trip up on this (double negative is correct in Spanish) and also some “groups” use it (might be young people or a certain area of the country) plus your examples above are kind of sayings thrown around, said often enough that it does not surprise me you ask.

It bothers me that some think it is acceptible English. I just want to know they know what is correct, if they had to write a formal letter for instance. Well, if English is their second language I would be very understanding, but if the person was born and raised in America they should know better, even if they use it loosely in their every day speech.

SeaTurtle's avatar

Thank you @augustlan @JLeslie , I was genuinely interested to whether the rule had been disregarded in American English or not.
Happy to read in logic.

cazzie's avatar

I like this site when it comes to all things English.

I’m bilingual and I make common mistakes with written English because I’m still getting used to having to languages in my head. I would never make the mistake of ‘double negative’ though, unless I was trying to sound ingenuous on purpose.

Response moderated (Off-Topic)
meiosis's avatar

The double negative rule does apply, it’s just that some people don’t think about the uctual meaning of the words they use.

morphail's avatar

But “I didn’t do nothing” means “I did nothing”. “You ain’t heard nothing yet” means “you haven’t heard anything yet”.

In some dialects of English, two negatives reinforce each other. It’s called negative concord. It was a normal feature of all English until Shakespeare’s time.

filmfann's avatar

Gangster-English is very popular with idiots here, but the double negative rules do apply.
And, yes, when they say they didn’t do nothin’, I take them at their word, and apply the double negative rule.

JLeslie's avatar

@filmfann GA. Gave me a little laugh.

cazzie's avatar

Oh, come on… @filmfann isn’t that ‘Gangsta-English’?

JLeslie's avatar

Haha, she’s right. Give the foreigner an A for knowing how to spell gangsta phonetically.

Blueroses's avatar

Sometimes a double negative has the effect of producing a weaker affirmative. Example: “She was not unimpressed.” This conveys the idea that she had some reaction but could have been more impressed.
Sort of a literary, passive-aggressive way of saying “meh”.

linguaphile's avatar

What I read was that the “no double negatives” rule as well as the “can’t end a sentence with a preposition” rule were forced onto the English language by the Latin worshipping academics back in the 1700’s and 1800’s. They, not being enlightened linguists, believed that if it was wrong in Latin, it had to be wrong in the more vulgar language, English. By imposing the rules of Latin onto English, they believed they were elevating English to a more proper level. So… according to that article, that’s why we never can have no sentences saying where it’s at.

JLeslie's avatar

My assumption was the OP was likely British, or some other English speaking country, but that his primary language is English.

@linguaphile That is interesting. I never studied Latin, but in Spanish double negative is correct, so you would tink a Latin root language would follow Latin?

morphail's avatar

@JLeslie Not necessarily. The negative concord in Spanish and French developed later.

JLeslie's avatar

@morphail So, the double negative in Spanish was not correct originally? I’m confused the Latin academics decided English should be rid of double negatives, but the double negative was added to Spanish?

morphail's avatar

@JLeslie I mean that negative concord arose naturally at some point in the development from Latin to Spanish. No one “added” it. It happened as part of normal language change, and it happened before people started to worry about “proper grammar”. (If it had been a more recent development, maybe the Real Academia Española would try to regulate it, I don’t know.)

In the 1700s, negative concord started to disappear from literary English. One of the reasons for this might be because some English grammarians looked to classical Latin as a model for how they felt English should be. Since classical Latin didn’t have double negatives, they felt that English shouldn’t either.

Harold's avatar

American English is an oxymoron. It is almost another language…...........

JLeslie's avatar

@morphail I find the history interesting, but the fact of the matter is today it is wrong to use a double negative in English in most circustances. Those using double negatives are not scholars of Old English; but rather, people who have a poor command of the language, and don’t know or care what is considered proper English. More times than not what they say sounds right to them. I personally am not fond of the double negative, or the lack of adverbs being used, and there are others. But that’s just me. It’s not that I have a perfect knowledge of the language, I make mistakes as well, but I want know what is considered correct.

Jeruba's avatar

@Blueroses, I don’t consider that a double negative. The idea of the doubling is that the intended negative is expressed twice when once would do, and so they logically cancel each other out. The construction you cite (which has a name that escapes me at the moment) is not intended to express a negative but to deny a negative. It’s perfectly grammatical and logical, and yes, it does have a different effect from a simple affirmative statement.

filmfann's avatar

@Jeruba Lurve for your Easter Bonnet.

morphail's avatar

@JLeslie English speakers who use negative concord do so because it is a feature of their dialect. I’m skeptical that everyone using negative concord doesn’t understand that it isn’t a part of standard English. If I use it in a job interview it might be a problem, but there are many informal situations where nonstandard English is expected.

@Jeruba I don’t understand the argument that it’s illogical. Language is not logic.

seazen_'s avatar

I am going to do that. I am so going to do that.

I am not going to do that. I am so not going to do that. There’s no way I am going to do that.

There’s no way that I am not going to do that; means – I’ll be sure to do that.

JLeslie's avatar

@morphail I am fine with people using it in some situations and not others. As I said, I really only care that they know what is correct so if need be they can write a decent sentence, or work in a corporate office, if the situation should arise. But, yes, there are bunches of people who speak poorly because they don’t know any better.

Jeruba's avatar

@morphail, I didn’t call anything illogical.

But language can express logical relationships, and logical reasoning can be applied to ideas expressed in language.

morphail's avatar

@Jeruba You said that the complaint about the double negative was that logically the negatives should cancel each other out. So “I didn’t do nothing” logically means “I did something”. Is that right? I don’t know if you believe it or not, but maybe you can clarify it. What I’m wondering is, why do people even make this complaint.

First, the two negatives in “I didn’t do nothing” clearly don’t cancel each other out.

Second, if we follow this argument then all the languages that use negative concord are illogical and confused.

Third, in algebraic logic, multiplying two negatives gives a positive (I think), but adding two negatives gives a negative. So why can’t we look at this as adding negatives instead of multiplying?

Fourth, why should we expect language to behave logically?

JLeslie's avatar

@morphail The double negative is supposed to cancel each other out, but people have said it incorrectly enough, that we usually know what they mean. Although, sometimes people use double negatives and I have to clarify to be sure. @seazen_ gave a good example of how the negatives cancel each other out.

Logic, rules, and consistency in language helps us communicate and be understood.

Your example of multiplying and adding misses the point that it is always the same when adding, and always the same when multiplying.

morphail's avatar

@JLeslie Double negatives cancel each other out in standard English, but in many dialects two negatives reinforce each other. So there is potentially some room for confusion.

But is there any actual confusion? Do you really have to ask someone what they mean because you’re unsure whether the negatives cancel each other or reinforce each other? There can be confusion around negatives because sometimes we undernegate or overnegate. For instance this sentence has too many nots:

It’s hard not to read this work and not shout ‘Guilty as hell’.

Other examples include “It is impossible to underestimate” which is often interpreted to mean “impossible to overestimate”. “Fail to miss” is often used to mean “miss”.

But these sorts of misnegations are made in standard English, where two negatives make a positive. If you hear someone speaking a dialect where negative concord is used, and they use a double negative, are you ever confused?

I sort of like my analogy with algebra. In standard English, two negatives are multiplied. In other dialects, they are added.

JLeslie's avatar

@morphail I think it partly has to do with how commonly the particular double negative is used, and the specific double negative. Nothing and anything can be easily understood as being synonomous in the sentence I don’t got nothin’.

I don’t see how “it is impossible to underestimate” can be misinterpreted? “Fail to miss” is one of those strange ones. Like people using “irregardless.”

I agree that a bunch of “nots” in a sentence can be confusing. Nots can create a double negative. Your sentence It’s hard not to read this work and not shout ‘Guilty as hell’. I guess actually means It’s hard to read this work and not shout ‘Guilty as hell’. The extra “not” in the beginning, in my opinion, is a poorly written sentence.

JLeslie's avatar

Again, I feel the need to say consistency matters. When I speak Spanish I am generally understood, but my grammar and verb conjugation is poor. It doesn’t mean the Spanish language should change because I am understood, it means to me I still need to improve my skills speaking Spanish.

morphail's avatar

@JLeslie My point is that you’re assuming the rules of standard English apply to all Englishes (it seems to me). You’re saying that people who say “I didn’t do nothing” are speaking “incorrectly” because two negatives make a positive in standard English. But “I didn’t do nothing” isn’t standard English, and you can’t assume that the rules of one language apply across all languages. Again, are there any real examples of nonstandard negative concord causing confusion?

I think we’re really talking about register. We all speak more than one language. The language I use in a formal interview is not the same language I use at the bar with friends. That doesn’t make one language “correct” and the other “incorrect”, they’re just different languages for different situations. You think we should use the language appropriate for the situation: standard English in formal situations, nonstandard English in casual situations etc. I’d agree with that.

This link has examples of “impossible to underestimate”.

JLeslie's avatar

@morphail I completely agree. This is actually the same point I made when all the articles came out about Ebonics years ago. If my husband can speak Spanish at home and English at work, why can’t people speak Ebonics in their home and community, and common English at work? I am not trying to take away the use of slang, dialect, or colloqualism. I don’t believe it is an either or choice. The person has to know their audience though, and I think it is important to have a standard(ish) English, or set of rules.

JLeslie's avatar

@morphail Do we agree there is a reason to have a standard English? Reason for people to be taught and to know standard English rules?

seazen_'s avatar

English is crazy – and stupid. No way you can’t say that’s aint true.

morphail's avatar

@JLeslie It’s a complicated question. I think students should be taught about register, so they are aware that different situations require different language. We shouldn’t use nonstandard English in an interview, for the same reason that we shouldn’t wear a T-shirt to an interview. Not because there is something inherently wrong with T-shirts, but because there are social conventions about how we dress for interviews.

In other words, I don’t think there is something intrinsic to standard English that makes it better for communication. As I keep saying, there is nothing unclear about nonstandard negative concord – inappropriate maybe, but not unclear.

As for whether a standard language is necessary – I don’t know. Many languages don’t have standardized forms, but presumably those languages aren’t worse at communication. Between about 1300 and 1700 there was no such thing as standard English, and it didn’t stop people communicating. And some of our best literature was written during that period.

JLeslie's avatar

@morphail All good points. Do you think educators should use the “standard” when teaching? You say children should be taught when it is appropriate to use specific language in various situations. I argue that when in doubt the commonly used language is always safe. My niece and nephew’s first language is Spanish. Going to school in America they learned English and use that in all situations outside of family, unless it becomes known the other person speaks Spanish and prefers to communicate in Spanish, it isn’t confusing really. I think people who are confused, really don’t have a good handle on commonly spoken English, which goes back to my point that there are bunches of people who simply don’t know double negatives are “wrong” and other mistakes. It puts them at a disadvantage. That is what this is about for me more than anything, that they are at a disadvantage typically.

seazen_'s avatar

Sheesh – dontcha guys know when to discontinue?

No-one aint letting go – or not giving up?

JLeslie's avatar

Just to annoy @seazen_

@morphail here is a recent thread on my facebook, I am not Leslie Curtis, it is a different person names Leslie:

Leslie Curtis
If I hear one more grown person use “thunk” in the place of “thought” in a sentence, I will beat their ass with a Merriam- Webster Dictionary. Thunk is not the plural of think.
30 minutes ago via TweetDeck ·
5 people like this.

Sharon Miller-Jones No it’s the ebonics version… They were kidding right?
27 minutes ago · Like

Katika Henderson-Roberts I hope they were kidding….
27 minutes ago · Like

Leslie Curtis No this was a journalist, I damn near fainted….LOL
25 minutes ago · Like

Lakechia A. Toombs How about using “sought” instead of “sat”.
24 minutes ago · Like

Leslie Curtis ‎@Lakechia My head may explode if I hear that.
23 minutes ago · Like

Sharon Miller-Jones Lmbo!
20 minutes ago · Like

Alisa Simmons Ummmm, not to be a stickler, but they are trying to use the past tense of think. Think has no plural. It is a verb and not a noun.
17 minutes ago · Like

Lakechia A. Toombs I kid you not, I heard a lobbyist say “morer” as in “more and more”. You wouldn’t believe some of the grammar used up here.
15 minutes ago · Like

Noel Hutchinson ‎...I’m sorry if I thunk it out loud…
11 minutes ago · Like

Leslie Curtis Something is going in the world that I’m not aware of because this is the 3rd time since last Wednesday that I’ve heard someone say this…and yes I can remember the day because it irritated me to the point of me wanting to choke the person saying it.
10 minutes ago · Unlike · 1 person

Leslie Curtis ‎@Noel the Lord has kept you out harms way…LOL…You know better.
8 minutes ago · Like

Noel Hutchinson ‎...all they’re trying to do is conversate…
8 minutes ago · Like · 1 person

Lakechia A. Toombs Dead @Noel.
8 minutes ago · Like

Noel Hutchinson ‎ they get scrength from eating more scrimp…
7 minutes ago · Like

Leslie Curtis LOL
7 minutes ago · Like

Alisa Simmons No, it’s swimp
7 minutes ago · Like

Arnetta Roberts- Hammond Try listen to why come…. Instead of how come . I hate it!
6 minutes ago · Like

Noel Hutchinson ‎@ Leslie…you better order a case of dictionaries, because with the amount of people you’ll need to hit, you will need all of them

seazen_'s avatar

Drink drank drunk

Think thank thunk

dabbler's avatar

I agree with @seazen_ “thunk” is the past perfect of think not the plural. ;-)
As in “Who’d have thunk it?”

dabbler's avatar

Besides that, American “English” don’t adhere to no nothin’ since the revolution. ;-)

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