English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

Is this a double negation? Is it still grammatically correct? If not, what is a better form?

He cannot go outside (legally, not physically), because he is under house arrest.

The meaning is that he is limited from going outside in a legal sense, but not in a physical sense.

share|improve this question
Hmm... it does seem odd: "I do not love him (romantically, not platonically) because he is a jerk." – MrHen Mar 30 '11 at 18:27
By the way, it's under house arrest, not on house arrest. – Jimi Oke Mar 30 '11 at 18:50
@Jimi Thanks! I corrected it. – xdumaine Mar 30 '11 at 20:16
up vote 2 down vote accepted

The sentence reads correctly, but a bit clumsily because legally and physically are not bound. By that I mean, the negation makes sense, but I have trouble immediately understanding what you're referring to with "legally, not physically." You might consider:

He cannot go outside (legally speaking, but not physically), because he is on house arrest.

share|improve this answer
+1 for adding the "speaking" for clarification. I'd actually rephrase the parenthesis as: (speaking legally, rather than physically) – psmears Mar 30 '11 at 19:40
@psm I considered that because I was unsure if legally speaking would technically require a hyphen – mfg Mar 30 '11 at 20:51
No hyphen necessary :) Usually I'd say "legally speaking" would be slightly better than "speaking legally", but in this case I personally prefer the latter because it seems to bring out the contrast between "legally" and "physically" more clearly... – psmears Mar 30 '11 at 20:57

Because the term house arrest already provides a great deal of context, it probably isn't even necessary to include the word physically. Perhaps try rephrasing with something like:

Legally, he is not permitted to go outside because he is on house arrest.

share|improve this answer
I feel that this answer is not really answering the question but is simply addressing that particular sentence. It surely is awkward but what, exactly, is wrong with the form? – MrHen Mar 30 '11 at 18:29
It does answer one of the three questions asked: "What is a better form?" Suggested use of parenthesis advises that they "contain material that could be omitted without destroying or altering the meaning of a sentence." In this case, however, it seems that author wishes to attach significance to the term legally, which proper use would suggest to be moved outside of the parenthesis. – HaL Mar 30 '11 at 18:52
Ah, yes, true. – MrHen Mar 30 '11 at 19:02

In legalese typically shall not is used. It avoids the ambiguity of the word can. May not would also seem to be appropriate.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.