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I have heard several sentences in which there was a prominent double negative, but the double negative "sounded right". Is this ever true, or is it just a misleading feeling?

Edited to include an example:

"Did you enjoy the movie?"

"Well, I didn't not enjoy it, but..."

I suppose that may just be bad grammar, but sometimes it seems to be the quickest way to say it.

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Maybe I should understand that if it doesn't look right in written form, it isn't correct. If I hadn't italicized the "not", it would probably look absolutely untenable. The only thing I really have to appeal to is the spoken form. Maybe that's not a strong enough appeal. –  Daniel Jun 27 '11 at 1:16
    
Related: english.stackexchange.com/questions/20629/… –  Cerberus Jun 27 '11 at 2:46
    
I would consider that if it doesn't look right in written form, it isn't correct in written form. Spoken language has so much more variance because you have tone and gesture to add in as well to make your meaning clear. –  neil Jun 27 '11 at 13:17
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5 Answers

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Double negatives can be perfectly fine in English.

  • If their sum is supposed to be negative, double negatives are very informal or slang in modern English. This usage is frowned upon by many people even if used in speech, unless ironically.

1.) I don't see nothing. (= I don't see anything.)


  • If their sum is supposed to be positive, it is generally acceptable in all registers:

2.) I suppose that is not impossible. However, it seems far fetched.

Here the double negative expresses a weak positive, a very common construction.


3.) Not bad, not bad at all! You have just saved her life, young man.

This is a figure of speech called litotes: the double negative (if that's what it is) is used to express a strong positive. Sometimes any double negative with a positive meaning is considered a litotes, including the unremarkable example 2 above. Other people restrict the term to those negations that express a strong positive through an apparently weak positive, in a mildly ironical manner, as in this example (3).


4.) Never a day goes by that I do not miss her. (= I always miss her.)

This is the rhetorical double negative, often considered a form of litotes. It expresses a strong positive, though without irony.


5.) Well, I didn't not enjoy it, but...

Here the word not is used twice, once in contracted form (don't) and once in full, to express a weak positive. Double not is a special case: it is felt to be even more redundant than other double negatives and sounds rather colloquial. The majority will probably use this in speech and informal writing, where it is perfectly acceptable, but not elsewhere.


The boundary between negations and other kinds of words is by no means sharp. The prefixes un- and im-/in- are usually considered negatives, as are hardly and many others; bad is sometimes considered a negative word, sometimes not, etc.

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So are double positives, "Yeah, right." :) –  osknows Jun 27 '11 at 10:49
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There are two types of double negative, and I think it is important to recognize the difference between the two. They are:

  1. negative concord, which is standard in Spanish, French, and many other languages, where negation amplifies with the addition of more negative words (or they are simply required). When people say "double negatives are not part of Standard English", they are talking about negative concord. (It is used in a number of English dialects, as well as in certain informal registers in most dialects.)
  2. two negatives yielding a positive, which is what you appear to be talking about. This exists even in Standard English. Your particular example might be a bit awkward, but that is just because you wrote an awkward sentence, not because double negatives are bad. Other double negations sound perfectly fluid, for example:

It's not that I didn't enjoy it...

or:

I'm not unhappy/dishonest.

or:

When I see someone in trouble, I can't not help.

I think everyone would agree that these are common Standard English constructions.

(However, as I said, even your awkward example is not ungrammatical in Standard English.)


Side note: even negative concord exists in Standard English in certain cases. For example, in response to negative questions:

"You're not coming?" —  "No (I'm not)."

Essentially, when someone asks a negative question, the answer of "no" does not yield the positive, i.e. it does not mean "No, I am coming". Instead, "no" creates negative concord, maintaining the negation of the question.

In other languages where they don't employ this negative concord, like Japanese for example, the way to respond to "you're not coming" would be "yes, I am not coming". Answering "no" would would mean "I am coming".

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About no, I'm not: as an alternative, you could say no merely echoes the question, and I'm not echoes it again, in apposition to no. // To complicate things even further, I believe you could answer yeah as well: [is it true that] you're not coming? — <whining tone:> yeahhh... you know I like to stay home on Sundays. –  Cerberus Jun 27 '11 at 3:49
    
@Cerberus: I think "echoing" is the basic logic behind negative concord. Also, if you say "is it true that", then it totally changes the syntax/semantics of the question and the answer. In general, if you answer "yes" to a negative question in English, it is ambiguous (we've all heard e.g. "yes you are or yes you aren't?"). This is the same reason that some languages have specific words to use in that situation (German doch and French si). –  Kosmonaut Jun 27 '11 at 14:54
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Most use of double negatives is indeed non-standard. But OP's example itself, although a little contrived, does show that the construct can be used quite correctly.

As this NGram shows, "[someone] can't not do [something]" is often used quite properly in non-contrived contexts. In short, the stricture against double negatives is not an absolute; it just so happens that many usages are in fact 'incorrect', particularly when repetition is simply being used to amplify the force of a statement. enter image description here

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From that, it's still not clear to me whether it is ever appropriate. You say it has been in use, and that it's been "properly" used. Does that mean it's ever appropriate? –  Daniel Jun 27 '11 at 1:46
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Double negatives that express a negative statement are used in dialect, and non-standard usage.

In Old and Middle English double negatives were normal, and started to get "disapproved" since the 16th century.

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It's non-standard.

At least in standard English.
In standard English, it is grammatically incorrect.

They used to be correct, i.e. in Shakespeare's day, it was considered emphatic(example: "He is not an unpleasant man" meaning he is a very pleasant man), but nowadays, with the change of English, it is now considered non-standard.

It is still used in certain dialects or slang and colloquialism, i.e. Ebonics, but it is considered non-standard.

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Out of curiosity, was irony your intention? –  rintaun Jun 27 '11 at 1:10
    
depends... which part was ironic? –  Thursagen Jun 27 '11 at 1:11
    
@Ham and Bacon: "No, it is never correct." That's a grammatical double negative right there. At least, more or less. –  rintaun Jun 27 '11 at 1:28
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I see nothing particularly archaic in "He is not an unpleasant man", and certainly the general format is perfectly normal today. It's not unlikely you might use it yourself, perhaps without even noticing. –  FumbleFingers Jun 27 '11 at 1:33
    
I think you mean "e.g. Ebonics". Double negatives (or more specifically, negative concord) are used in many dialects outside of AAVE (AAVE being the current awkward euphemistic name for this dialect). –  Kosmonaut Jun 27 '11 at 2:45
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