Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard someone say “I didn’t do nothing”, whether that was on TV or in real life. Now raise your hand if you’ve ever cringed after hearing that and thought to yourself “that ain’t standard English!”. Or maybe you’ve read some terms and conditions (as if anyone does that!) and it said “No participant shall not be present for more than 30% of COMP101” and thought to yourself “wait, what?!”.
Although these examples are both in completely different contexts, they’re both great examples of double negatives. And that’s what this whole post is all about. Let’s dive in!
What are double negatives?
Double negatives are pretty self-explanatory:
- Double = two
- Negative = not positive
So when we talk about double negatives, we just mean that there are two negative elements in one sentence. Contrary to what you may think, double negatives don’t need to occur right next to each other. As long as there are two negative elements in one sentence, then it’s considered a double negative.
Here are some example sentences:
- I didn’t do nothing.
- No participant shall not be present for more than 30% of COMP101.
- She doesn’t have nothing but the clothes on her back.
- She never told no lies.
- The outcome is not uncommon.
What are the different types of negation in English?
You may have noticed from the examples above that there are different ways to create negative words in English. You can:
- Use a negative adverb
- Use a negative prefix with a noun
Note: Instead of saying “make something negative”, we can use the verb “negate” to mean the same thing.
Probably the most common way to negate a sentence is to use negative adverbs. These are simply words you put in front of verbs to change their meaning from positive to negative. Here are some examples:
- I do not like bananas.
- I’ve never heard of such a ludicrous idea.
- Manchester United are no better than Liverpool.
- He rarely comes to work on time.
Another really simple way to negate a word is to use prefixes. A prefix is a small part we add to the start of a word to change its meaning. Here are some examples of negative prefixes:
- He deescalated the situation.
- She has a hormone imbalance.
- I misinterpreted what he said.
- They were dissatisfied with the service.
- He felt really uncomfortable.
- Her love for him was non-existent.
What’s wrong with negation?
So what’s the big deal with negation? Should we avoid it at all costs?
Well, no. Why?
Because if we didn’t have negation, then we couldn’t express ourselves correctly. How do you say “I don’t like bananas” without using a negative? You can’t. So with that logic then, we have to use negatives.
The problem with negatives isn’t that we use them though. The problem with negatives only occurs when we use multiple negatives in the same sentence. Why? Because when we use multiple negatives in one sentence, they cancel each other out. If I say “I did not misinterpret what he said”, then I’m basically just saying “I interpreted what he said”.
When we use multiple negatives in one sentence, our brains have to process each negative part because it’s a marked part of language. The default in English is for sentences and words to have a positive meaning. When we want to express a negative meaning, we have to add a word or prefix to show that. That’s another thing our brain has to process, so when we use two (or more!) negatives in a sentence, we’re essential adding two processes that our brain has to work through to get the same result as a positive sentence. It makes no sense, really!
Why should I use double negatives?
Wait, didn’t I just spend a whole section telling you why you shouldn’t use double negatives?!? Yes . . . but there are actually great reasons to use double negatives too! You might like to use double negatives:
- For stylistic purposes
- When using a different dialect
- When arguing with someone
Sometimes we might want to emphasise what we’re saying, and double negatives are great for this purpose. If I said “It’s common”, this wouldn’t really have any special meaning or emphasis. But if I said “It’s not uncommon”, then I’m emphasising its commonness.
There are also many different English dialects (or varieties) that different people use according to their background and where they live. It’s often completely acceptable to use double negatives in certain dialects. We often use the standard English dialect in plain English, but we don’t need to limit ourselves. If your audience speaks a non-standard dialect that freely uses double negatives, then by all means use double negatives! Communicating in your audience’s dialect is a great way to ensure they understand you better.
And lastly (and perhaps this one’s a little silly!), you’ll no doubt use double negatives when you’re arguing with someone. If someone said “You misunderstood what I was saying”, then you might respond with “I did NOT misunderstand you”. This ties back into the first point about style, but I thought it would be fun to include anyway!
How do I remove double negatives from my own communication?
So if you don’t want to use double negatives for the reasons listed above, then it’s super easy to get rid of. Here’s how to do it:
Identify the negative parts in your sentence
Work out whether the negative parts are negative adverbs or negative prefixes.
As a reminder, negative adverbs are words like:
And negative prefixes are words that start with:
Ask yourself if they’re necessary
If there is only one negative part in a sentence, then you’re probably fine. But if there are two or more, then you might be using double negatives when you don’t want to be. If you have two or more negatives in one sentence, ask yourself if they cancel each other out. Chances are they will.
Remove the negative words if they’re not necessary
This is really easy: just get rid of the negatives. Here are some examples:
- “It’s not uncomfortable” becomes “it’s comfortable”
- “He didn’t deescalate the situation” becomes “he escalated the situation”
Sometimes you can just remove one of the negatives and change a word to one with the opposite meaning. Here’s an example:
- “No participant shall not be present” becomes “no participant shall be absent”
This sentence could be edited further so it’s easier to understand, but I’ll leave it at that for this example.
The bottom line
So, the bottom line is this: pay attention to how you use negatives in your own communication. Ask yourself if they’re really necessary and whether you can remove them and still keep the same meaning.
Remember to limit double negatives when using plain standard English and only use double negatives for specific purposes.