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How should the following sentence be understood?

"There isn't no happiness".

a) meaning: There IS some happiness . (Because the two negations cancel each other out)

b) meaning: There is NO happiness.

In daily-life conversations, which of the two would most likely be meant by the speaker? (Why would one want to use a double-negation anyway?)

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marked as duplicate by RegDwigнt May 19 '13 at 23:22

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General Reference. Listen to Bill Withers' Ain't no sunshine when she's gone and ask yourself whether he's getting some "sunshine/happiness". –  FumbleFingers May 17 '13 at 18:49
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Context is needed. It would matter whether the speaker is one to abuse the double negative as in the song @FumbleFingers referenced, or not. It could mean either - you'd need to have a frame of reference to determine which is meant. (Technically, it means there is happiness.) –  Kristina Lopez May 17 '13 at 19:23
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You prefer negative polarity. Others prefer negative concord. And multiple negation has still other complexities. –  John Lawler May 17 '13 at 19:27
    
Please search the site before posting. This question has been asked literally a hundred times by now. In fact someone asked it just a week ago. It is extremely tiring to have the exact same people post the exact same answers and comments over and over again, week after week after week. This is literally wasting everybody's time. –  RegDwigнt May 19 '13 at 23:29

4 Answers 4

up vote 2 down vote accepted

In English, unlike many other languages, two negatives make a positive. So, there isn't no X means there actually is some X available.

However, in some dialects, notably US slang, double negations are used. These are usually in the form of there ain't no rather than there isn't no. For example

There ain't no cure for love

Strictly speaking, that means that there is, in fact, a cure for love. However, the sentence will be understood by most native speakers to mean that there is no cure for love.

As a general rule, double negatives should be avoided unless you are acting in a gangster movie or are using them for poetic effect.


As a side note, English is perhaps the only language with a commonly used double positive that becomes a negative:

Bart: I'm smarter than you!

Lisa: Yeah, right.

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Right, it's originally the word ain't but I personally find it particularly annoying, so I changed it to isn't. –  One Two Three May 17 '13 at 19:00
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No more annoying (indeed, considerably less so) than the double negative. A double negative with isn't is just plain wrong, with ain't you can hide behind you own quaintness. –  terdon May 17 '13 at 19:02
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This is absolutely false. Apart from very rare cases where extraordinary stress is used (Pinker gives an example of Try as I might, I can't get no satifaction from this), it has never been true in English that two negatives make a positive - except in the argumentation of those who want to insist that I ain't got none is wrong. Ain't no, isn't no, don't want no etc. are universally understood as negative. –  Colin Fine May 19 '13 at 19:01
    
@ColinFine what do you mean? Would you not understand this isn't not hard (clumsy as that may be) to mean this is hard? –  terdon May 20 '13 at 15:35
    
But nobody says this isn't not hard: it's not part of anybody's language. People do say I don't know nothing, and everybody understands them. OK, I'll modify my claim, to restrict it to the so-called double negative which consists of a negative verb and a negative quantifier (no, none, nobody). For cases like your example (which hardly ever occur) English assigns no consistent meaning: the hearer is just as likely to assume it's a mistake and hear it as this isn't hard. –  Colin Fine May 21 '13 at 16:01

Literally, it means There is happiness, but I expect the speaker meant There is no happiness.

I think it's more common to see this kind of double negation in a sentence with ain't rather than isn't.

As to why one would want to use double-negation anyway, you'll have to ask someone who uses it!

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I ain't got no problem with double-negation. This being one of the rare occasions where the purpose is educational (but it would be dishonest of me to claim I ain't got no education). In other contexts I might do it for emphasis, for comedic effect, or simply to demonstrate that I'm fluent in multiple (usually, spoken) registers. –  FumbleFingers May 17 '13 at 20:38

Why not use a double negation?

I want to make this clear, in no uncertain terms: the use of double negatives is perfectly permissible, albeit sometimes a little harder to understand--at least initially--than the more prosaic use of the positive.

Then you have the positive assertion:

I want to make this clear in certain terms.

Oh, yeah, what kind of terms do you want to make it clear in?

Hmmm, maybe I should re-think that assertion I made about the double negation being harder to understand initially than the positive assertion!

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[I made this a comment, but I think it deserves an answer].

Such phrases - consisting of a negative verb and a negative quantifier such as no, none, nothing or never - are always negative in English, and it is perverse to pretend otherwise.

It is simply false that "two negatives make a positive" in English*, and even the people who claim this understand the meaning perfectly well (unless they are being deliberately perverse).

"This is what it would mean if English worked the way I think it ought to" is an entirely different concept from "This is what is means".

*There are certain contexts where two negatives can cancel out in a sense, and there are also rare cases which are ambiguous; but as a universal claim this is false.

[Edited in response to comments]

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Can you give a few more details about what you mean by "such phrases"? –  Sam Lisi May 20 '13 at 10:46

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