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Time magazine (Aug.2) reported that Toledo Mayor instructed city residents not to drink tap water polluted with toxin caused by algae bloom under the headline: Toledo, Ohio without drinking water for second day.

“In a Saturday press conference, Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins called upon residents to stay calm. 'I don’t believe we’ll ever be back to normal,' he said, the Toledo Blade reports. “But this is not going to be our new normal. We’re going to fix this. Our city is not going to be abandoned.” http://time.com/3074318/toledo-water/?xid=newsletter-brief

I’m drawn to the line - “I don’t believe we’ll ever be back to normal,” which sounds like to me as if the Mayor doesn’t believe the water will get back to normal.

What is the difference between “I don’t believe we’ll ever be back to normal,” which is simple negation and “I don’t believe we’ll never be back to normal,” which is double negation leading to affirmation?

Actually, this morning AP news reported that Ohio Governor, John Kasich declaired yesterday that toxin level in the water supply has gone down significantly .

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The double negation is incorrect. It's either: "I don't think we'll ever" or "I think we'll never..." –  Jim Aug 3 at 22:04
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You are correct in your belief: the Mayor does not believe that a normal state will someday return. “I believe we’ll never” and “I don’t believe we’ll ever” are equivalent. Note that as a standalone sentence, “We’ll ∗ever be back to normal” is ungrammatical in English: that’s because ever must be used in a negative sentence. If he had said that he does not believe that they’ll never be back to normal, the cancelling negatives would work out to believing that a normal state is actually attainable. His don’t believe ever version says that he thinks that state is not attainable. –  tchrist Aug 3 at 22:16
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Isn't this unclear as to the difference you're looking for, as you've in your own question established a difference? –  SrJoven Aug 4 at 1:21
    
Now it's pretty clear to me. –  Yoichi Oishi Aug 9 at 7:28
    
@tchrist Actually, one can use "ever" that way to mean the same thing as "forever". " We'll ever be back to normal" means that after some point we will always be at normal. –  AJMansfield Aug 27 at 2:40

4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Double negation is not an issue. What the mayor said was

I don’t believe we’ll ever be back to normal

There's only one negative in that sentence.
And there's only one negative in this sentence, which he didn't say, but which means the same

I believe we won’t ever be back to normal

I've boldfaced the negatives (don't, won't), as well as the Negative Polarity Item ever.
Since ever is an NPI, it's only grammatical inside the scope of a negative.
That's why another sentence the mayor didn't say, with no negative at all, is ungrammatical.

  • *I believe we'll ever be back to normal

Normally negating a main verb upstairs doesn't count as negating a complement clause downstairs:

  • She didn't say that he was coming She said that he wasn't coming.
  • He didn't realize that she was in the room He realized that she wasn't in the room

This is called "compositional" negation, because the negative composes only with the clause it's in.
It's the norm with most predicates, as shown above. But there are a number of predicates where compositional negation is not the norm. They're all verbs of mental perception.

  • She didn't believe that he was coming She believed that he wasn't coming.
  • He didn't think that she was in the room He thought that she wasn't in the room.
  • There doesn't appear to be a problem There appears not to be a problem.

This phenomenon is called Negative-Raising, and it is governed by these predicates only.
Unsurprisingly, these are called "Neg-Raising Predicates".

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I'd recommend changing your example sentence. Rather than change the contraction to “won't”, I think it would make the relationship more clear if you changed “ever” to “never” directly speaking to the OP's confusion. Thoughts? –  HalosGhost Aug 4 at 6:30
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The fact that neg-raising exists does not mean that it always applies. I believe there is no god does most emphatically not mean the same as I don't believe there is a god. I agree the difference is lost in most everyday conversation, but it would be strange if there were no longer any way to express the difference just because of the mere existence of neg-raising. –  oerkelens Aug 4 at 9:06
    
I certainly agree with the above comment, "I believe we won’t ever be back to normal" is different from "I don’t believe we’ll ever be back to normal" as the latter allows the case that the mayor does not know, they may not believe either way that they will or will not be back to normal. –  Vality Aug 4 at 9:24
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Yes, in logical terms such compositional negation is always possible, and is the basis of lots of bad jokes. But in actual speech, neg-raising with these verbs is far more common than compositional negation, which is rarely interpreted correctly even when attempted. –  John Lawler Aug 4 at 14:48
    
@oerkelens: Unfortunately, the distinction is often lost to an everyman. This makes many debates between atheists and theists into a sitcom: "I don't believe in a god." "Okay, prove that God doesn't exist then." "I never said I believed he didn't exist." "You just did!!!" Unfortunately, unless you're a linguist, mathematician or a programmer, for all intents and purposes there really isn't a more elegant way to express "It is not the case that I believe X" or "I neither believe nor disbelieve X" in English language. –  Amadan Aug 4 at 23:06

What is the difference between “I don’t believe we’ll ever be back to normal,” which is simple negation and “I don’t believe we’ll never be back to normal,” which is double negation?

In this context, the double negative would first of all be slightly confusing, but also I would say the line "I don't believe we'll never be back to normal" implies the weakened affirmative as Josh61 suggested.

That is, I would understand "I don't believe we'll never be back to normal" to mean there is a small chance the water would be back to normal in the future, if the proper action was taken.

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It is worth noting that in the "I don't believe", the don't applies to the mayor's beliefs, while the never in "never be back" applies to the state of normality. These are actually distinct concepts as the mayor could be wrong or hold no beliefs whatsoever either way. –  Vality Aug 4 at 9:30

I agree with your conclusion. A single negative is the desired form and both:

"I don’t believe we’ll ever be back to normal."

and

"I believe that we will never be back to normal."

mean approximately the same thing.

(an overly fussy person might argue that don't believe implies more concern with belief than an assessment of the water.)

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They do not mean approximately the same thing; they mean precisely the same thing. See here. –  tchrist Aug 3 at 22:56
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@tchrist I disagree; Oxford Online Dictionaries gives believe as Accept (something) as true; feel sure of the truth of:...if you believe a statement is true, you accept it. Don't believe can mean that you have no evidence either way. It can mean that you reserve judgement as opposed to judge as false! –  Gary's Student Aug 3 at 23:19
    
Please argue with Professor Lawler on this one, not me. He’s the expert whose witness has already been given on this matter in his answer above. –  tchrist Aug 4 at 6:07

The sentence 'I don't believe we will ever be..' is grammatical and correct. The use of 'never' would make a case of double negative.

  • In standard written English, when two negatives are used in one sentence, the negatives are understood to cancel one another and produce a weakened affirmative. However, in many dialects, the second negative is employed as an intensifier and should be understood as strengthening the negation rather than removing it.

The rules dictate that the two negative elements cancel each other out to give a positive statement instead, so that the sentence ‘I don’t know nothing’ could literally be interpreted as ‘I do know something’.

  • Double negatives are standard in many other languages and they were also a normal part of English usage until some time after the 16th century. They’re still widely used in English dialects where they don’t seem to cause any confusion as to the intended meaning. Nevertheless, they aren’t considered acceptable in current standard English and you should avoid them in all but very informal situations. Just use a single negative instead.

Source: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/words/double-negatives Source:http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double_negative#Two_negatives_resolving_to_a_positive

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Please do not confuse double negation with negative concord. An example of double negation is “I’m not not going to see you”, which affirms that I will see you again. An example of negative concord is the Rolling Stones’ “I can’t get no satisfaction”, which means exactly what “I can’t get any satisfaction” means in standard English. Double negation is standard and by no means uncommon. Negative concord is non-standard but also hardly uncommon. –  tchrist Aug 3 at 22:31
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The following definition is by oxforddictionaries.com/words/double-negatives: A double negative uses two negative words in the same clause to express a single negative idea: We didn't see nothing. [ = We saw nothing.] She never danced with nobody. [ = She didn't dance with anybody.] –  Josh61 Aug 3 at 22:37
    
That’s nice. It is also not useful, since how then do you propose to distinguish non-standard usage like “Nobody ain’t never gonna dance with my little buttercup” from standard ones like “I’m not not going to see you again” or “None of the countries named have no political prisoners”? As you see, the non-standard usage I cited is not “double” negation (if we were counting, it would be triple), while the standard usages both are so — and are just fine. –  tchrist Aug 3 at 22:45
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Negative Concord:grammar.about.com/od/mo/g/Negative-Concord.htm - A characteristic of a language--or a dialect of a language--in which one negative element in a sentence requires that certain other elements in that sentence also be negative. This construction is commonly referred to in English as the "double negative". Although many of the world's languages exhibit negative concord, in present-day Standard English it is generally regarded as unacceptable in formal usage. –  Josh61 Aug 4 at 4:44

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