The Double Negative: It’s Not Unusual (Sometimes)

We all know how bad double negatives can be. Along with ending sentences with a preposition, double negation can be near the top of the list of English grammar mistakes.

However, we always find them, usually in colloquial speech, sometimes in prose. We find them a lot in the lyrics, where more ARE NOT can be added to fill in a blank syllable or add emphasis, such as “I could not be satisfied” or “there was no sunshine when she was gone.”

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‘Litotes’ refers to an understatement where an affirmation is expressed by the negation of the opposite.

The type of structure most often criticized by grammarians is when two negations are used to convey the intention to be a single negation. Only from the song’s context do we know that “I can’t get no satie” means “I can’t be satisfied.” A satisfied Mick Jagger makes up a boring song.

The argument against double negation is founded on the fact that negation is an absolute concept; something is present or absent, and adding a second negative to a sentence doesn’t make the sentence any more negative than it was before. However, the cumulative use of compound negations, imposed for a pattern of emphasis, has existed since Chaucer’s time in the Middle Ages. Shakespeare also uses it:

And that no woman; nor will anyone ever be his mistress. —William Shakespeare, Twelfth night1602

One way to interpret a sentence containing a double negative is to read it mathematically. In math, if you multiply two negative integers (for example, -5 x -7), the resulting product is a positive integer (+35). Similarly, if you combine two negative expressions in the same sentence, people can interpret the sentence as a positive expression. Literally, “I can’t be satisfied” means “I can actually achieve some satisfaction, I’m fine with pursuing that, thanks for asking.”

I have no reason to lie to you.

after removing two negatives: I have reason to lie to you.

But sometimes we come across a double negative expression that is intentionally created because it expresses something slightly different from what the sentence would mean without the negation. Consider the following:

Officials from the Department of Wildlife Resources say that it is not rare to see an elk in the area, but it is very rare to be attacked by a moose. — Idaho State MagazineOctober 27, 2017

But, as the Economist editorial also notes, it is not unheard of for the Presidents of the United States to speak eloquently about their Chinese counterparts. —John Cassidy, New YorkersOctober 26, 2017

Let Me Be Frank with You isn’t perfect, but it unworthy of its three notable predecessors, together form one of the most difficult works to follow in contemporary American literature. —Michael Schaub, NPR.orgNovember 6, 2014

Such structures appear frequently in English, and they are accepted despite containing two negative components, from Are not and prefix cancel- before an adjective. In classical rhetoric, such constructions are called examples of gallstones, is defined as “reduced speech in which an affirmation is expressed by the negation of the opposite.” These constructions are often thought of as artistic words that express something subtly different from what would be expressed if the two negations were removed.

See more:  On ‘Suffice It to Say’

So while it’s not uncommon to see a moose in the area, that doesn’t mean it happens every day. This phrase was chosen deliberately because its purpose was to dispel the notion of unpopularity with elk. Likewise, the book is “not unworthy” compared to earlier books, rather than simply “worthy”, because the idea of ​​its unworthiness was suggested by In fact, it’s not perfect.

It is perhaps no coincidence that one of the most familiar instances of such expression is also the title of a song. When Tom Jones sang “It’s Not Unusual” to be liked by everyone, it was a different meaning than “It’s Usual” understood. Also—if we all agreed that being loved is a daily thing, wouldn’t we sing a lot about it?

Categories: Usage Notes

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