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This has been bothering me for a while and I'm finally at a forum where I feel like I might get an answer. I have heard people say "I can hardly wait for summer to get here" and I've also heard "I can't hardly wait" variation.

Which is correct? It seems to me like the double negative of "can't hardly" is incorrect but I'm unable to specify a clear reason as to why it is.

Is it just grammatically incorrect or does it mean something different than what I'm trying to convey?

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4 Answers

up vote 15 down vote accepted

The phrase "I can't hardly wait" is incorrect.

I suspect it is the result of a confusion between:

I can't wait

and

I can hardly wait

which are both correct.


The phrase

I can't hardly wait

doesn't make sense: it would mean "I don't find it hard to wait", which is probably not what is meant.


Probably adding to the confusion is the 1998 teen movie "Can't Hardly Wait". It is possible that the title itself was picked up because the expression is in vogue in American high schools although I did not find any confirmation for this hypothesis.

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Wiki says the film was named after a song by The Replacements: Lights that flash in the evening, // Through a hole in the drapes // I'll be home when I'm sleeping // I can't hardly wait // I can't wait. Hardly wait. –  z7sg Ѫ Jun 12 '11 at 11:33
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Both are correct in the sense that a native English speaker will understand what you meant when you use either.

The operative word in both expressions is hardly, which has multiple meanings:

  1. with difficulty
  2. barely, scarcely

The first sense of the word is what causes some to say can't hardly wait is incorrect: if you can't wait with difficulty, you must mean you can wait a good deal.

But in reality, it's the second sense of hardly that being used. Someone who can hardly wait has just enough willpower to wait out whatever it is. Someone who can't hardly wait doesn't even have that amount.

(Note: Wikitionary even claims the first sense is obsolete)

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Care to share a link to your note about can hardly's being obsolete? –  snumpy Jun 12 '11 at 11:20
    
@snumpy It's the link to Wikitionary on hardly in the second paragraph. –  user2512 Jun 12 '11 at 11:35
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I don't follow your logic here, @MarkTrapp. How does the second sense mean that the construction 'can't hardly' makes sense? Compare I can't barely wait and the intended I can barely wait. Obviously, the first sentence there is not what the speaker intends to express. 'can't hardly' is essentially a double negative in its mechanism and, as @AlainPannetier suggests, probably comes from a misappropriation of multiple phrases. –  Karl Jun 12 '11 at 15:52
    
@Karl you seem to just be disagreeing with me, which is fine, but I'm not sure how I could explain the logic any clearly than the last paragraph. –  user2512 Jun 12 '11 at 17:43
    
"Correct in the sense that a native English speaker will understand what you meant" is hardly correct. –  trutheality Jun 13 '11 at 0:49
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They're interchangeable -- "can't hardly" is a regional/dialectical variant. The proscription against emphatic double negatives is purely artificial in English; they have been around as long as the English language itself.

Ne con ic noht singan; and ic for žon of þeossum gebeorscipe ut eode ond hider gewat, for þon ic naht singan ne cuðe.

Twice in that sentence (from the prologue to Cædmon's Poem from the Venerable Bede), Cædmon says the equivalent of "I can't sing nothing". Similar examples can be found in Chaucer, Shakespeare, the letters of Abigail Adams, and so on.

Double negatives used for emphasis are as idiomatic to English as split infinitives. Use whichever version you're comfortable with -- unless you're turning a composition in to be marked -- and realise that others do not need to be corrected out of it.

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+1 for identifying double negative emphasis. –  jackgill Jun 24 '11 at 0:59
    
Welcome back! +1 for mentioning that it is a non-standard variant. But I'm not sure I find your argument compelling that "it used to be standard 1300 years ago; therefore it should not be discouraged today": what has been current during the past 100 or 150 years would be more relevant. Etiquette would seem a better reason. –  Cerberus Jun 24 '11 at 4:12
    
Nice to be linguistically semi-functional again. I take the abomination of prescriptivism personally -- the emphatic double negative never went away in fluent spoken English (nor did the split infinitive, prepositional sentence endings or compound subjects containing the object form of pronouns). The usage is correct, it's just not in accordance with the artificial grammar imposed by people who were oblivious to the actual grammar of the language. The 1300-year-old reference was an example of the age of the idiom; it was current when I learned to speak and is current today. –  bye Jun 24 '11 at 4:22
    
@bye Yes, it was current in Shakespeare's day. No doubt the 'groundlings' in the pit at The Globe spoke atrocious English and as a playwright in touch with the popular mood he reproduced it. But it doesn't make it good English, then or now. It is one thing to reproduce popular culture on stage or in print, it is another to say that the language is correct. You wouldn't apply for a job and use horrendous double negatives at interview, so why are you urging my children to do that. –  WS2 Jan 4 at 0:11
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Even if the double negative in "can't hardly wait" is logically, and I'm almost sure gramatically, incorrect, I think many would understand what the speaker means.

In Spanish, my native tongue, using double negatives is quite common and there are expressions such as "no veo a nadie", literally "I don't see nobody," which are clearly understood as "I don't see anybody."

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And if I say 'I aint not never done nuffink to nobody' I've no doubt you will understand me. But please don't encourage young persons to speak that way unless your object is to prevent them obtaining decent employment. –  WS2 Jan 4 at 0:13
    
Your example is way more complicated than "can't hardly wait" or the Spanish one I mentioned but I agree with you; I didn't intend to encourage confusing writing and obviously simpler and clearer is always better, in any language. –  Alexis Bellido Jan 8 at 23:58
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