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How can you explain that this double negation is not a double negation? Is there a rule in English about this kind of sentence?

PS / Do I have to mention Pink Floyd Copyright ? :-)

Edit : Since there are a lot of Pink Floyd related explanation, I'll bring a Freddy Mercury one : "I don't have time for no monkey business", which I also understand as "I don't have time for monkey business". Am I right ?

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I don't know nothing about this. –  Brian Hooper Jan 14 '11 at 12:22
But if ya don't get no education, ya ain't gonna get no good job. –  Robusto Jan 14 '11 at 13:11
Ironical grammatical error due to having no education? –  Tester101 Jan 14 '11 at 16:28
@Brian yeah right... –  Jin Jan 14 '11 at 17:33
No, you wouldn't need to mention a copyright because copyright cannot apply to short phrases or single sentences. –  JAL Jan 15 '11 at 0:16

8 Answers 8

up vote 46 down vote accepted

Doubled negatives are often used casually in certain dialects to indicate negative concord, an intensification of negation rather than an inversion of it. This typically happens when both words involved are simple negatives, and is most common with no standing in for a, an, or any alongside don't or ain't.

So you can safely assume that

He isn't not going to the concert.

is double negation proper, because it has emphasis, as is

She wasn't unimpressed.

because this is litotes, whereas

I ain't no hillbilly.

is negative concord, because it's obviously casual, and uses ain't no in place of am no or am not a. (It's also a patent lie, but that's beside the point.)

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+1 for fancy words I did not know until now –  sova Jan 14 '11 at 21:00
Tangent: in some languages, "double negative" is the correct way. For example, in French, "ne me mange pas" ("don't eat me") - "ne" and "pas" are both there for negation. In Spanish, this can be done for emphasis: "Nunca jamas te comeria" ("I would never ever eat you") - "nunca" and "jamas" are both essentially "never." –  Nathan Long Jan 15 '11 at 15:39
@Nathan Long: Well...kind of. In French, ne never stands alone, so it's really just there to introduce negative constructions, and some constructions with ne aren't even negative, such as ne...que, meaning only as in je ne mange que pamplemousse, "I only eat grapefruit". –  Jon Purdy Jan 15 '11 at 18:39
@Jon: A structurally closer translation would be "I eat nothing but grapefruit". In "ne pas", it was "ne" that was the negation, while "pas" was a mere intensifier, like "at all" or "shit" or "ever". This comes from sentences of the type "je ne marche pas" (I do not walk a step), from which the intensifier eventually came to felt as an essential part of the negation. Cf. "point" and "personne". Note that English and most other Germanic languages also went through a double-negative phase in the Middle Ages. –  Cerberus Jan 16 '11 at 8:11
@Jon: Are there non-IE languages that use nasal forms of negation? That would be interesting. Chomsky would like it. English do-support is indeed a bit cumbersome, it might well be got rid of. P.S. Frisian and Dutch use inversion with questions, not with negations—we don't need any marker apart from the negation itself (yet...). –  Cerberus Jan 17 '11 at 1:23

He made this "mistake" of double negation on purpose. It is a form of protest in itself; what he meant was: we don't need education, we will speak (or do) as we want. He was going against the "imposed" correctness and etiquette.

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Well, there's another line that seems to support your interpretation: "Teachers, leave them kids alone". Which, from a prescriptive point of view, is ungrammatical too. –  Juan Pablo Califano Apr 22 '11 at 17:05
@JuanPabloCalifano: I never actually noticed that! Nice! –  Trufa Apr 23 '11 at 22:41

Regarding the use in Another Brick in the Wall, just as important as the irony it's also how a child of that class, era and region would probably express that they didn't think they needed educating.

While some hear a double negative as incorrect, some hear it as emphasis.

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You could assume that commas have been left out:

"We do, not need, no education"

in which case the implication would me that although education is needed, they do not 'do' it (incorrect, but could be appropriate as slang).


"We do not [have], need no, education"

Where the repition is used as emphasis: "we do not [have] education, and we need no education"

Both of these are a bit of a stretch, and while possible, I doubt they are what Pink Floyd intended.

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Why the downvotes? –  Benubird Jul 2 at 15:07

This is an ironic phrase because the the sentence is not conventionally grammatically correct. However, it follows a speach pattern of groups of people in the US often socially and economically marginalized. These people do not like being looked down upon and phrases like this are often said with a level of defiance.

My grandfather used to say, "I don't need no ej-a-mication". He intentionally mispronounced the word to mock it. But really, he dropped out of school around the eighth grade and was poor most of his life, so he might have been a liitle ashamed of his situation and was using the phrase to deflect pity.

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What is correct may not be easy to understand, and what is easy to understand may not be correct. To a limit.

On reflection, it seems common that only no and ain't can be used to intensify a negation rather than a double negation, whereas correct English requires using any, isn't, or aren't.

I would probably never hear "This paper ain't unacceptable," but it's conceivable to hear "This paper ain't gonna get no acceptation from me."

Also, "This paper ain't unacceptable" is ambiguous, so I would expect to hear "This paper ain't unacceptable, but you gotta be proofreadin' some mo'."

Perhaps you can use exercises like asking what a certain written sentence might mean:

  1. You're not wrong.
  2. You ain't wrong. (still double negation)
  3. I ain't gonna take any shit from you. (possibly ambiguous, a sign of someone trying to copy a dialect, but slipping up with "any")
  4. I'ma takin' no crap from you.
  5. I'ma takin' no attitude from none of youse.
  6. None of you ain't right. (ambiguous)
  7. None of you ain't wrong. (ambiguous triple negation)
  8. Not one of you isn't wrong. (crystal clear triple negation)

The comprehension of an ambiguous phrase often depends on the context in which it appears.

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It’s worth noting that this “inverts” the sense only in Standard Written English. In AAVE and other vernaculars this is not only grammatically correct, it’s also semantically correct, i.e. the normal negation is in some contexts always created via double negation which does not resolve to a positive.

The same is true for many other languages: if you’re not convinced that a vernacular is a valid grammatical description (but from a linguistic point of view, it is!), take French, where double negative is mandatory (most of the time) by prescribed grammar rules: to negate a verb, it is embedded into “ne … pas” (or archaically “ne … point”) which are affix and suffix and both indicate negation, even when used in isolation (which does happen occasionally).

(Since this has garnered so many upvotes, let me give credit where credit is due, and also a reading suggestion: This information is from Steven Pinker’s excellent book The Language Instinct.)

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Upvoted this, since this question got duped here, and it was a question about AAVE. We should point out that Rap, Blues, and much Rock&Roll music typically have their lyrics written in AAVE, so this comes up a lot in popular culture. –  T.E.D. Nov 11 at 19:37

It's a double negation, but it's unintentional (or rather supposed to sound unintentional), so the meaning is still a single negation. The sentence is grammatically correct, but incorrect in the sense that the actual meaning is not what was intended.

The strict meaning of the sentence is the double negation, but as it's obviously a mistake you interpret the intention of the sentence instead, which is the single negation. The obvious difference between the actual meaning and the intended meaning is used here to demonstrate a lack of education.

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On the contrary, there is no reason to suppose it is unintentional. And despite what generations of pedagogues and pedants have claimed, the sentence means exactly what it intended to mean, unless you apply a perverse set of semantic rules which belong to logic, not to human language. Pinker shows in "The Language Instinct" that you can construct instances where a double negative really does cancel out ("Try as I might, I cannot get no satifaction from this") but no English speaker actually misunderstands "I can't get no satisfaction", therefore it means what it is supposed to. –  Colin Fine Jan 14 '11 at 14:08
So you are saying that it's correct only because it can be understood? By that reason you could do practically any thing to the languige as long ass its still posible too under stand itt, and its stil nott incorect? –  Guffa Jan 14 '11 at 16:04
No, he's saying that it's correct because it is not occurring in a context where the rules of logic take precedence over those of the vernacular, such as a treatise on mathematics, ##c, a Q&A site about programming, or (counter-intuitive though it may seem) Alice in Wonderland. (That isn't the only factor, of course -- Konrad's wonderful answer explains how you can get an actual, canceling, double negation even outside that sort of context -- but it is the main one.) –  SamB Jan 14 '11 at 19:40
The rule against double negation is an artificial one, like the rule against splitting infinitives -- they can all be traced to Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-century prescriptivists who wanted to make English fit the grammar of Latin and Greek neatly. Shakespeare is peppered with double negatives, and not in the mouths of fools and peasants, neither, and if you stripped them from Chaucer you'd have little left to tell on the way to Canterbury. –  bye Feb 23 '11 at 8:03

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