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When I think of double negatives I think of phrases that grate on the ears, like:

I'm not going to do no homework.

I'm never going to not go visit Graceland.

There are some phrases that appear to technically be considered a double negative, but seem more common and are, in my opinion, actually pleasing to the ear. And I've seen such uses in newspaper articles, magazine articles, and other edited content.

I'm referring to phrases like:

It's not uncommon for two people to meet serendipitously.

Baseball is not unlike golf - both are boring to watch without a beer in hand.

It's not unusual to be loved by anyone.

Are the above examples of double negatives? Should their use be avoided?

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this usage nowadays is not uncommon ;) - so I'd not feel it needs to be avoided. –  JoseK Apr 12 '11 at 6:05
Avoid their use if you are unsure about how to use them. But if you are not unsure, then go ahead! –  GEdgar Aug 8 '11 at 14:07
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4 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

To answer your first explicit question, I would say they are double negatives:

A double negative occurs when two forms of negation are used in the same clause.

To answer the second question, I would say the use of litotes is perfectly acceptable.

Litotes is a form of understatement, always deliberate and with the intention of emphasis. However, the interpretation of negation may depend on context, including cultural context. In speech, it may also depend on intonation and emphasis; for example, the phrase "not bad" can be said in such a way as to mean anything from "mediocre" to "excellent."

The respective Wikipedia articles (linked to and excerpted above) give a lot of good information. I would like to emphasize the potential ambiguity in litotes, in that the intensity of the double-negative-as-positive ranges from "mildly positive" to "resoundingly positive".

Finally, see this other EL&U question covering the specific example of not uncommon.

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+1 for mentioning the use of litotes for understatement, e.g. "a not inconsiderable task". –  Steve Melnikoff Apr 12 '11 at 14:34
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It's a rhetorical technique called litotes, and it goes back at least as far as Homer:

οὔτε γάρ ἔστ᾽ ἄφρων οὔτ᾽ ἄσκοπος... ("he is neither unthinking, nor unseeing")

If it's good enough for St. Paul ("I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no ordinary city" -- Acts 21:39) it's good enough for, well, you.

EDIT I forgot my favorite example, Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle, which contains several exchanges like

Kumar: You're worthless

Harold: (dejected) I'm not worthwhile

John Y. points out that not all litotes fit the OP's model of "not un-". In fact, the best (St. Paul, John Cho, Sade) don't. I thinks it's, ahem, not unreasonable to say that the "not un-" style can sound plodding and even pompous.

(While I'm wondering off topic: none of this should be interpreted as defense, even by way of faint condemnation, of the real double-negation of the "we don't need no education" variety, which is Just Plain Wrong.)

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"no ordinary city" instead of "a strange city" or "an extraordinary city". –  Malvolio Apr 12 '11 at 6:11
Fair enough, as an example of litote (I found it in Wikipedia's litote entry just before deleting my original comment). Still, it was worth pointing out because it doesn't have the "not un-" construction. It may not be obvious that ordinary is meant as a negation of something here. –  John Y Apr 12 '11 at 6:18
While posting my own answer, I missed the window for editing my comment. I wanted to change all instances of "litote" to "litotes", as I'm sure litotes is a valid word, but I'm not sure litote is. Apparently litotes can be used as a singular or plural as needed. (Maybe this should be its own EL&U question.) –  John Y Apr 12 '11 at 6:44
Don't let the -s ending fool you, "litotes" is an uncountable noun, like "sarcasm" or "hyperbole". There's no "a litote" any more than there is a "two sarcasms". –  Malvolio Apr 12 '11 at 6:53
@Malvolio: Ah, the comparison to "sarcasm" and "hyperbole" makes it clear, thanks. (You may then want to make a small edit to the phrase "not all litotes fit" in your answer.) –  John Y Apr 12 '11 at 7:15
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IMHO, no, it is not a double-negative. At least not the normal sense of the word. A double-negative refers to using two negatives, as in not and no, when trying to convey one meaning where you actually end up saying the opposite. "It is not uncommon" is a negation of a word with a negative meaning.

Think of it this way. Can you say "I'm not going to do no homework" in another way that makes your meaning clearer? Obviously you can. "I'm not going to do any homework." Can you say "It is not uncommon" in a way that makes your meaning any clearer? Nothing comes to mind for me. You could say, "It is ordinary", but that has a slightly different meaning to me.

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+1 for making the distinction between syntactic negation and semantic negation. Two syntactic negations are what is meant by "a double negative". Directly negating the meaning of a word, regardless of the positive or negative value statement in the meaning, isn't a double-anything. –  SevenSidedDie Apr 12 '11 at 19:33
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Having two negation terms together intended as negation is common in colloquial and non-standard dialects of English, but it is prescribed against in Standard English. For example:

There ain't no chitlins left in the skillet.

which translated to Standard English is

There are no fried pig intestines remaining in the frying pan.


There aren't any fried pig intestines remaining in the frying pan.

(ignore for the moment that "ain't" is also prescribed against in SAmE)

This is primarily what one (your school teacher) referred to when they said "Double negation is forbidden".

But using two negatives in order to create a logical positive, (or weak non-negative), while cognitively laborious, is perfectly allowable. The phrase

not uncommon

...is 'legal' English and is intended to mean common or rather more accurately "somewhat more frequent than rare, i.e. not rare, but I don't want to go so far as to say frequent".

So one can use two negatives when the intention is to mean a positive.

So for your examples, the first one is OK in some varieties of non-standard English (but of course grates, as you said, in Standard English). Your second example is -not wrong- just slow to make sense of and most likely was intended to mean "I will go to Greenland".

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I wouldn't say chitlins were pig skin though... –  Dusty Apr 12 '11 at 13:54
@Dusty: ...oh..right...fixed. –  Mitch Apr 12 '11 at 16:29
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