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Peeves the Poltergeist is a practical joker in Harry Potter books. Why is he saying ‘nothing’ for ‘anything’ in the following citation? Does this express his character? Is it possibly a dialect or anything?

”Peeves, get down here NOW!” barked Professor McGonagall, straightening her pointed hat and glaring upward through her square-rimmed spectacles.

”Not doing nothing!” cackled Peeves, lobbing a water bomb at several fifth-year girls, who screamed and dived into the Great Hall.

N.B.: Peeves is floating in the air and throwing water bombs.

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4 Answers 4

up vote 5 down vote accepted

"Not doing nothing", is not, as some have asserted, grammatically incorrect. It is just pretty likely that the speaker means something different than the strictest interpretation of the phrase would mean.

For example, if I am talking to my kid:

Me: "Kid, it is a beautiful sunny day, how come you are sitting here doing nothing?"

Kid: "I'm not doing nothing; I am imagining what it would be like to travel to Jupiter."

Here, the kid is using the phrase correctly. However, most likely Peeves does not have that intent at all, he really means "I am doing nothing." It additionally has a color of sulky and sophomoric. It is one of those phrases that people frequently misuse, and most likely Ms. Rowling is trying to convey a particular flavor of the pesky poltergeist's personality.

It is fair to ask if it is actually incorrect. If many, many people use a particular phrase, and its meaning is well understood, then, the goosebumps of strict grammarians notwithstanding, it might be argued that it is at least colloquially correct. Frankly, I could care less, or I couldn't care less, or something like that :-)

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1  
As I have said above, multiple negation is ungrammatical only in modern Standard English, the variety which most native speakers don’t speak. It is not normally marked by any particular attitude. –  Barrie England Oct 4 '11 at 16:32
    
@Fraser Orr That’s exactly what I wanted to know, and the nice conversation between you and your kid is also helpful to me. Thanks a lot. –  user7493 Oct 5 '11 at 5:08
    
@Barrie English Oh, I see. The color or flavor comes from the combination of the speaker and the words, not the expression itself. Thanks. –  user7493 Oct 5 '11 at 5:11
    
@totoro: to emphasize - not just color/flavor but actual meaning comes from both context and the words. Much of language is not literal; two negation words do not always mean a positive. In an informal style (like for peeves), "I'm not doing nothing" translates to a more formal style "I'm not doing anything". –  Mitch Oct 5 '11 at 13:22
    
@Mitch That was helpful. Actual meaning comes from both context and the words. That’s the trickiest part when I learn English. Whew. Thanks a lot. –  user7493 Oct 18 '11 at 7:25

Peeves is using negative concord, where two negatives reinforce each other. This is a feature of some dialects.

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+1 Thanks for the helpful link. –  user7493 Oct 5 '11 at 5:07

Yeah, it is grammatically incorrect, and was intentionally written so to indicate Peeves' personality/background.

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6  
It is ungrammatical only in modern Standard English. –  Barrie England Oct 4 '11 at 6:43
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@BarrieEngland, for most practical purposes, "grammatically incorrect" and "nonstandard" mean exactly the same thing. –  Marthaª Oct 4 '11 at 19:39
    
Unfortunately so, for it is the source of much misunderstanding about language. –  Barrie England Oct 5 '11 at 6:16
    
Peeve's speech was grammatically incorrect in regards to the language/dialect in which the book was written. Can we agree on that? –  Jordaan Mylonas Oct 5 '11 at 6:34
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Yes, in so far as the book is written in Standard English and Standard English does not permit multiple negation. But when authors put words into a character's mouth, they choose the words which they imagine the character would be likely to use. –  Barrie England Oct 5 '11 at 7:38

Technically "not doing nothing" is a double negative which would me that Peeves is not doing nothing, but rather he is doing something. You could say "I'm not doing nothing" and it would be grammatical if you intend this meaning. On the other hand, this may be him joking and trying to sound innocent when in actuality he is not.

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1  
I don't understand why this would be downvoted. Isn't logic supposed to be one of the foundations of grammar? –  Karl Knechtel Oct 4 '11 at 10:55
    
Thank you Karl Knechtel. I was wondering the same thing. –  Mark Oct 4 '11 at 11:01
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'Isn't logic supposed to be one of the foundations of grammar?' In a word, no. –  Barrie England Oct 4 '11 at 11:09
    
While logic might not be a foundation of grammar it certainly plays a role in analyzing and understanding the meaning of a sentence. –  Mark Oct 4 '11 at 11:15
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Your answer does nothing to actually address the heart of the question. The double negative is an obvious technicality. Why the character says it is however not a question of logic, but of culture and history. By the spirit of logic, dictionaries could be reduced to a single entry which reads, "A series of letters used for human communication". –  tenfour Oct 4 '11 at 22:00

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