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Suppose the following sentence:

"Aren't the headers not covered by copyright?"

Is this sentence correct?

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1 Answer 1

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Yes, it's correct. But if you get at yes or no answer, I bet you won't know how to interpret it.

If you do away with the contraction, your sentence is:

Are not the headers not covered by copyright?

This means what you are trying to confirm is that the headers are not covered.

This is confusing, but it isn't a mistake unless you're trying to confirm the opposite. If you don't mean to have a double negative, you have the choice of including the negative before or after 'the headers', so instead use either

Aren't the headers covered by copyright?

or

Are the headers not covered by copyright?

In either case, you aren't opening up the respondent to a yes or no answer. If you want a clear answer to your question, you're better off saying:

Are the headers covered by copyright?

If you want to get across the fact that you were under the impression that headers are not covered by copyright, then you should say:

I was under the impression that the headers are not covered by copyright. Are they?

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1  
Let alone interpret the answer, there could be cases where you can't reliably interpret the question (labelled "mistake" or not, if a speaker asks this they may well mean effectively the same as the version without "not"). So if you get asked a question like this and you're not absolutely sure what the questioner meant, best to clarify! –  Neil Coffey Sep 21 '11 at 18:50
    
+1 - some people use a double negative to emphasize the negative rather than negate it so I always check or give a long answer like "It's not covered". –  Wudang Sep 21 '11 at 18:57
    
I think this answer is ridiculous. It's true that an anal pedant could logically and grammatically justify OP's sentence, but most people would think you were being tiresome if you posed a question to them using that format. Sticking with the contrived variables here, one might more sensibly say "The headers aren't covered by copyright, right?". Double negatives are hardly a model of clarity, and we all know slang usage has a lot of it where they don't cancel each other out. It's bad English. –  FumbleFingers Sep 25 '11 at 0:08

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