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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”)?
Double negation  

I'm not a native English speaker, and this question may be very basic, but I want to learn English better, so don't hurt me with downvotes.

What is the difference between "I don't know nothing" and "I don't know anything"?

Do they have the same meaning or opposite ones?

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NB: “I don’t know nothin’ about that” ≠ “I don’t not know anything about that”. The second is a true double negative; the first is still a single negative reinforced through reduplication, which is why it still has a negative sense. The true double negative alone has positive sense. –  tchrist Aug 18 '12 at 14:16
@FumbleFingers You would consider pretty "uneducated"? According to this oxford dictionary, it is informal but accepted. I don't have my OED here, unfortunately, but I'm pretty sure I'll find it there too. –  terdon Aug 18 '12 at 14:18
@FumbleFingers Technically speaking, it actually isn’t. Please see my answer below. –  tchrist Aug 18 '12 at 14:28
Please only ask one question per question. Please also make sure to use capital letters and punctuation marks, especially if your stated goal is to learn English better. You might also be interested in supporting our proposed sister site for English language learners. Thank you. –  RegDwigнt Aug 18 '12 at 14:37
@FumbleFingers Fair enough, I was most certainly not implying anything as to your level of education :). I agree it is informal, I had just understood your "uneducated" to mean that using pretty in that context is a mistake. –  terdon Aug 18 '12 at 16:18
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marked as duplicate by FumbleFingers, Andrew Leach, coleopterist, RegDwigнt Aug 18 '12 at 14:35

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1 Answer

up vote 3 down vote accepted

There is no semantic difference between these two:

  • I know nothing about that.
  • I don’t know nothin’ about that.

The difference is one of register alone, where the first is standard English and the second is perfectly common but far more casual, and is not generally considered acceptable in formal writing save as reported speech.

Please note that the second one is not a double negative, for if it were, it would be a positive! And it’s not. Consider this contrasting pair to see the difference:

  • I don’t know nothin’ about that. (reinforced negative)

  • I don’t not know anything about that. (negated negative)

The two components of this second pair are no longer equivalent. The second is-at last a true double-negative. The first is merely a single negative reinforced through reduplication, which is why it still has negative sense. The true double-negative alone has positive sense.

In English, a double-negative makes a positive, just as a double-positive makes a negative.

  • In the not utterly unlikely circumstance that you really do come up with such a thing as a double-positive, surely it must mean the same as a single-positive!
  • “Yeah, sure.”
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So does "I don't know nothing". If you do not know nothing, you must know something. It is similar to the wonderful "I dind't do nothing" which, strictly speaking, means "I did something". –  terdon Aug 18 '12 at 14:23
@terdon: in Standard English, you would say "I don't know anything" rather than "I don't know nothing", but the any- plays the exact same role as the no- in non-Standard English. That position requires a negative-polarity item, it just so happens that Standard English opted for any. It could just as well have opted for no, and then you'd be wrongfully ridiculing the people who use any. Both constructions are completely equivalent. The difference is one of register, not logic. –  RegDwigнt Aug 18 '12 at 14:29
@RegDwightАΑA Perhaps, but English has 'opted' for 'any', therefore, if asked which is correct I will go for the one that is used. Had it 'opted' for no I would have answered differently. In any case, 'any' and 'no' are not equivalent. Compare 'anywhere' to 'nowhere'. By the way, I wasn't ridiculing nobody! :) –  terdon Aug 18 '12 at 14:38
I don't know exactly what a double-positive makes a negative means, but I don't think I agree with it. Nor do you, judging by the next sentence. –  TimLymington Aug 18 '12 at 14:42
AAVE (which is the non-standard English in question) repeats a negative to emphasize negation, which is called Negative Concord. This is normal also in French (Je ne regrette rien) and Spanish (No tiene nada), and indeed is common worldwide. Standard American English, however, uses a different system called Negative Polarity, in which words and phrases like any, ever, in weeks, and budge can only appear inside the scope of some negative. –  John Lawler Aug 18 '12 at 14:45
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