Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I have heard many (rather most) people, especially in the USA, saying:

I don't know nothing about it.

Is that correct? I always get a weird feeling hearing this and feel the correct one would be saying:

I don't know anything about it.

share|improve this question
    
This construction calls to mind Prissy's line from GWTW: Lawzy, we got to have a doctor. I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies. –  moioci Sep 1 '10 at 2:42
add comment

5 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

The second one is correct for most dialects of English. The first one is a double negative, or as we call it in linguistics, exhibits negative concord. Wikipedia has a pretty good article on double negatives:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double_negative

Most prescriptive grammarians will tell you that a double negative is incorrect because it is "illogical." However, there are many languages that operate just fine using double negative obligatorily. For instance, almost all Romance languages have obligatory negative concord:

  • Italian: Non so niente.
  • French: Je ne sais pas.

Double negatives used to be grammatical in English, but there was a grammatical change sometime during Middle English. The Wikipedia article gives a sentence from a 1644 letter by Oliver Cromwell (emphasis is added by me).

A little after, he said one thing lay upon his spirit. I asked him what it was. He told me it was that God had not suffered him to be no more the executioner of His enemies.

The double negative is still used in many modern dialects, but it is typically very stigmatized.

share|improve this answer
    
Could you check your first paragraph again: "The second one is a double negative" – isn't the first example the one with double negative? –  Jonik Aug 31 '10 at 16:01
    
oops! Fixed it. –  JoFrhwld Aug 31 '10 at 16:13
    
French translation should be "Je ne sais rien". "Je ne sais pas" is simply "I don't know" (en) or "Non so" (it). –  mouviciel Sep 24 '10 at 14:23
add comment

The second example is the grammatically correct one.

However, the first is common in certain dialects.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Logically speaking, the negative of negative is positive.

So, the first sentence may be translated as follows:

I don't know nothing = I know something

Nevertheless, some american slangs use this formula to strengthen the negation not to negate the negation!

share|improve this answer
    
I think this assumes language is parenthesizeable, so that "I don't know nothing" = "I don't (know nothing)". However, as many note, we really can't treat linguistic statements as straight mathematical statements. For example, "hot dog" is a single word, not a warm canine. –  barrycarter Dec 28 '10 at 18:11
add comment

The correct one is the second. The first one might be used, for instance, by the (educated) speakers just in order to give their speach a pleasant rustic flavor. It sounds even better with "ain't" instead of "don't".

share|improve this answer
1  
I disagree on two counts: (1) I find it hard to believe that someone who doesn't normally speak like this would use the phrase in order to sound "rustic". (2) "Ain't" normally means "is not" or "am not", so can't be used here. –  Steve Melnikoff Aug 31 '10 at 10:26
    
Properly rustic would be pronounced as follows "I dunno nuffin abou' it, guv'nor" :) –  Benjol Aug 31 '10 at 11:22
    
Also, "rustic" implies "rural", i.e. used in the countryside. However, this kind of usage is also present in some London dialects, and London would be unlikely to be described as "rustic"! –  Steve Melnikoff Aug 31 '10 at 15:02
    
@Melnikoff: no implication, since the word has MORE than one meaning. Also, "ain't" has more than two meanings: e.g. "haven't": <i> "I ain't got no clothes left," she replied. "They stole my blue and the yellow cambric with muslin sleeves my lady gave me."</i> (Patrick O'Brian). –  Olod Aug 31 '10 at 16:13
add comment

The New Oxford American English reports that anything is used

  • in negative, or questions to refer to a thing, no matter what.

    Has she found anything?
    Nobody was saying anything.

  • without negative, for emphasis.

    Albert was ready for anything.

Nothing is used in sentences like

She said nothing.
There's nothing we can do.
They found nothing wrong.

Using nothing (which means not anything) in a sentence with a negative is to use a double negation. I imagine the double negation can be used in some particular cases to give emphasis to the sentence.

share|improve this answer
1  
I don't think double negation typically has anything to do with emphasis. Some dialect have obligatory negative concord, and others don't. –  JoFrhwld Aug 31 '10 at 12:14
    
@JoFrhwld: That is why I wrote I imagine. –  kiamlaluno Aug 31 '10 at 12:38
    
Don't NEVER say you can't use double negation for emphasis! –  moioci Sep 1 '10 at 2:43
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

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.