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Is there a rule about double negations that aren't meant as double negations (e.g. “We don't need no education”)?
Meaning of “you don't need no memory” and its grammar or rhetoric

Is there any consensus yet on how double negations should be treated?

For instance:

I don't need no doctor. (coll.)

Does the speaker need a doctor or not? Some authorities emphasise that logic prevails, in which case the speaker would need a doctor (no and no means yes). However, there are plenty of others who say this is not true.

When one starts from the meaning of what a speaker wants to express, he would easily come to tell that double negations do NOT make a positive sentence. The aforementioned logic-thinker, however, would just call that rum ram ruf and continue by saying that the world needs to learn their language again.

So: intention of speaker > logical structure of language, or not?

Also, as a side note, my mother dialect (a Dutch (Flemish) dialect) does have double negations as its default way of making a sentence negative.

Da'k 'et nie-j-en wee = That I not-*en* know

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I'm sorry. I have no idea how I came to that example. Edited! (Oh come on, I hate random down votes without an explanation) –  Bram Vanroy May 28 '12 at 10:45
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Not my downvote, but I will say: I don't see too many random downvotes (unexplained, perhaps, but certainly not random). In the absence of an explanation, though, reexamine the question, and the FAQ. In this case, you're asking a question that seems rather open-ended, and likely to elicit opinion – that is, one with no real answer, save the one you provided: (some side one way, others say "rum ram ruf"), or else one that can be answered with a general ref., such as this guideline. That's my theory. –  J.R. May 28 '12 at 11:05
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I had an English teacher once who said it was interesting that two negatives could make a positive, but two positives could never make a negative. Then one of my mates at the back said, "Yeah, right." –  Lunivore May 28 '12 at 11:11
    
Well, I started my post with the main question. I only needed to know if some one knew if there was a consensus yet. I provided what I already know, but possibly that information is already out-dated and maybe some one knows of a sort of consensus that was agreed on during a conference or so. But thanks for the explanation anyway. –  Bram Vanroy May 28 '12 at 11:11
    
The consensus is that it's not proper, which is probably why you marked it as colloquial. If someone told me, "I don't need no doctor," I would surely hope he's not urging me to call an ambulance. –  J.R. May 28 '12 at 11:35
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marked as duplicate by RegDwigнt May 28 '12 at 11:42

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2 Answers

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There is no concensus on how to interpret a double negative in English. This is because there are two uses. The most common is what you've cited in your example, i.e. "I don't need no doctor." This is considered a grammatical or stylistic error and school children are strongly discouraged from using this construction as a rule of thumb. The reason that this is considered an error is because the intention of the speaker is actually a single negative and the doubling of the negative creates the confusion which your question highlights.

It is possible, however, to use a double negative in English as a way of making a point subtly or with irony or humour. For example: "She is not unattractive." Used in this way this construction is called litotes. In this construction the negatives are intended to cancel each other out.

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Multiple negation has long been a feature of English, but it is one that modern Standard English now lacks so that, as the linguist Peter Trudgill has said,

. . . no choice is available between I don’t want none and I don’t want any. Most non-standard dialects of English around the world permit multiple negation.’

It will normally be clear when the meaning of multiple negation is to intensify the degree of negation, as in your example, and when it is used as a kind of understatement.

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