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A friend of mine who's a native English speaker corrected me the other day. I said something like "it's not something no-one has done before". He told me about the rule that states that double negatives cancel out, thus making the sentence affirmative. He told me I should rather say "no-one hasn't done before".

I can see at least two ways of saying the same thing:

  • "It's not something no-one has ever done"

  • "It's not something someone hasn't done before"

According to the rule, these sentences will convey an affirmative meaning as well.

What I want to say is basically:

Someone has done this before.

Which is an affirmation. What's wrong with double negation then?

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When people talk disparagingly about double negatives, they usually mean things like "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" - where the doubling-up is intended to amplify the negation, even though logically it cancels it out. There's nothing incorrect (or even remarkable) about the type of double negative referred to here, so I'm voting to close as General Reference. –  FumbleFingers Nov 30 '12 at 22:06
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I'd say "It's not as if this hasn't been done before". Sometimes it's necessary to recast the sentence to make clear what it wants to say. Complex syntax isn't maximal for communicating, only for playing. –  user21497 Nov 30 '12 at 23:21

3 Answers 3

up vote 8 down vote accepted

There's nothing wrong with your formation. You took the noun phrase "Something no-one has done before" and used it as a complement ("It is not [noun phrase]").

Incidentally, a double-negation is not an affirmation; it is a litotes. "It was not unlikely" does not mean "It was certain"; it might be neither likely nor certain. Only the negation of the first is clear.

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Everything involving negation is complicated and full of irregularities and surprises. This goes double for double negation; few humans have evolved enough to handle weapons-grade negation on a regular basis. –  John Lawler Nov 30 '12 at 21:25
    
Not all double negations are litotes. –  Jim Dec 1 '12 at 1:26
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@John Lawler: measured in negatons? –  Edwin Ashworth Dec 1 '12 at 9:10
    
Megahorns, in extreme cases. See here for a somewhat less highly polarized case. –  John Lawler Dec 1 '12 at 17:36

There's nothing per se "wrong" syntactically with double or multiple negation. In principle, the following sentence is perfectly grammatical:

He mustn't not never have done it to nobody.

and you can imagine that speakers might interpret this sentence by mathematically "unpicking" each negative just as you would unpick multiple negative signs when combined in a mathematical equation.

The problem is that this isn't actually how humans interpret negatives in natural language.

In reality:

  • (a) although it has a "logical" interpretation, humans will typically find a sentence such as the above, with multiple negative elements, very difficult to interpret.
  • (b) there is a phenomenon where, at least in informal English, the interpretation of multiple negatives can depend on the intonation, which is sometimes difficult to represent in writing and can also depend on register.

Point (a) is, I think, illustrated by my sentence above. You can probably understand each individual negative, or even individual pairs of negatives, perfectly well. But taken together, you've probably no idea what the sentence actually means. I know I haven't.

As an example of point (b):

"I haven't DONE nothing!" will generally be interpreted as an emphatic version of "I haven't done anything!"

"I haven't done NOTHING!" will generally be interpreted as an emphatic version of "I haven't done literally nothing, but rather something", "It isn't true that I have done absolutely nothing".

So pragmatically, for these reasons it's usually sensible to avoid multiple negatives in writing and rare to combine more than two in speech, bearing in mind that if you do combine them you may need to be careful with intonation, something that may not come easily to a non-native speaker. It's not that they're ungrammatical in principle. It's more that in practice they're difficult for speakers to deal with.

P.S. That said, I should have mentioned that multiple negatives are less problematic when each negative is in its own clause. So "I haven't done nothing" is maybe a bit harder to interpret than "It's not true that I haven't done anything". So if you must use a multiple negative, try and get each negative in its own clause.

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Your first example is ungrammatical if you accept Orwell's sixth law. And I think that most of us do. Along with the rider, Break any of [the other] rules sooner than say anything potentially misleading. –  Edwin Ashworth Dec 1 '12 at 9:16
    
Call it misleading, impossible to interpret, pragmatically awkward etc. But it's not ungrammatical! –  Neil Coffey Dec 1 '12 at 15:15
    
I've come across instances where top linguists degree over whether a given construction 'is grammatical' or not. I've never yet heard one give the name of a referee they'll all agree to the decisions of. –  Edwin Ashworth Dec 2 '12 at 17:20
    
You could even go a step further: arguably, the "interesting" cases are precisely where it's difficult to reach a consensus on whether a given utterance is grammatical, and that grammaticality judgements are heavily dependent on your ability to imagine a suitable context. (Arguably they shouldn't be, but in reailty that can occur.) However, it's not clear to me that this is one of those controversial cases. –  Neil Coffey Dec 2 '12 at 18:54
    
from: The Decline of Grammar by Geoffrey Nunberg theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/97mar/halpern/nunberg.htm : BEFORE we can talk about how to put grammar back on its moral and intellectual feet, we must consider what grammatical criticism has been all about in the English-speaking world, and how we have come to the present sad state of affairs. We usually assume that good English is straightforwardly based on a few simple and unexceptionable maxims: keep it clear, direct, and logical, the handbooks say, and the rest is commentary. –  Edwin Ashworth Dec 2 '12 at 22:39

There are two kinds of double negation. One negates and the other affirms.

An example of the kind that negates is I ain’t done nothing. This means that the speaker has not performed any of the acts alleged. It most definitely does not mean that they have been committed. The construction is no longer allowed in Standard English, but is found in other dialects.

Your examples are of the second kind. It's not something no-one has done before means that whatever is under discussion has been done before. No-one hasn't done before is not a satisfactory alternative, not least because it risks being taken as the other kind of double negation.

There may sometimes be good reasons for using this second kind of double negation, depending on the context and the intention of the speaker. If there are no good reasons, then it is best avoided, because it forces the reader or listener to spend time untangling what you have said, instead of paying attention to what it is you are actually saying. If you really wanted to say something other than Someone has done this before, you could say It’s not as if no one has ever done this before.

Litotes uses two negatives to achieve an understatement as a way of saying the opposite of what the words themselves seem to mean. Not bad, for example, will often mean not just a little better than nothing, but ‘very good’.

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