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This song by The Rolling Stones, "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction".
As a non-native speaker, I always wondered what's the exact meaning of this phrase?

  • Is it "I'm not getting any satisfaction" (this seems to be the most widely met translation; double negation used where single negation should have been used).
  • Or is it "I want my satisfaction, I cannot leave without getting some" (makes much more sense to me).

Or is it something else?
I've always had troubles understanding double negation as applied to English. First I was taught it's a mistake to use double negation at all, and then I see it everywhere.

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Did you try looking at the lyrics of the song? It's pretty obvious what it means. –  delete Aug 16 '10 at 2:40
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I did, and though it does argue for the first option, it still doesn't argue for it hard enough. Thinking about it, I can put in the second meaning and still get a meaningful result. –  GSerg Aug 16 '10 at 8:43
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It took me a while to figure out how you got to your second meaning. For anyone else: No Satisfaction = Unsatisfied => I Can't Get No Satisfaction = I Cannot (or Will Not) Be Unsatisfied –  J.T. Grimes Aug 17 '10 at 20:48
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As a general case, song lyrics are a bad place to learn proper English. They are much more flexible than other uses. One of my favorites is "Is you is or is you ain't my baby?" It is clearly not acceptable as standard English, but I would expect native speakers to parse it properly. –  Ross Millikan Nov 16 '11 at 5:15
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To a logician, "I can't get no X" would mean something like "I must get some X", but approaching English as a logician is a mistake. The English language (maybe any language) constantly defies logic. To a native speaker, It means "I can get ABSOLUTELY no X" –  TecBrat Feb 15 at 11:24
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4 Answers 4

up vote 29 down vote accepted

The reason you were told it’s a mistake is because it is a usage found in dispreferred dialects. Similar to use of ain’t, double negation—also known as negative concord—is quite common in many dialects of English, but it is not part of any formal register of English—that is to say, it is not a feature of the standard English taught in schools. Negative concord is a feature of the standard dialect of many languages, such as Spanish—just not standard English.

“I can’t get no satisfaction” in formal standard English would be “I can’t get any satisfaction” or “I can get no satisfaction”. However, it’s important to note that although formal modern English does not have a negative concord rule, such a rule is not inherently “illogical”, as many commenters who try to explain English’s rule claim.

Here is a post on Language Log about “overnegation”.

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Double negations are also used in Italian; in the case of "I can't get sadisfaction", though, the double negation is not used in Italian. –  kiamlaluno Aug 17 '10 at 12:37
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Another example: "I didn't do nothing" is often used when the person means "I didn't do anything" or "I did nothing". –  DisgruntledGoat Sep 8 '10 at 12:26
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+1. Negative concord is a prominent feature of AAVE. This is important, because this is the dialect Delta Blues is generally written in. The Rolling Stones (the band in question) were (/are) big blues fans, and that was almost certianly the dialect they were trying to use in this song. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… –  T.E.D. Aug 23 '12 at 22:00
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OK, since the lyrics are so hard to understand, I've translated them into standard English for you:

I can't get no satisfaction
I can't get no satisfaction
'Cause I try and I try and I try and I try

I repeatedly endeavour to fulfil my desires, but fail.

When I'm drivin' in my car
And a man comes on the radio
He's telling me more and more
About some useless information
Supposed to fire my imagination

I was listening to the radio while driving my car. The information given by the radio presenter was neither useful nor interesting to me.

When I'm watchin' my TV
And a man comes on to tell me
How white my shirts can be
But he can't be a man 'cause he doesn't smoke
The same cigarettes as me

I was watching a TV commercial for detergent. The presenter of the commercial did not live up to my ideals of masculinity because of his choice of tobacco brand.

I can't get no satisfaction
I can't get no girlie action
'Cause I try and I try and I try and I try
I can't get no, I can't get no

I am unable to form relationships with the opposite sex, despite my best efforts.

When I'm ridin' round the world
And I'm doin' this and I'm signing that
And I'm tryin' to make some girl
Who tells me baby better come back later next week
Cause you see I'm on a losing streak

I travel around the world taking part in various activities. During these travels, I attempted to form a friendship with a woman, but she rejected me, making an excuse.

I can't get no, I can't get no
I can't get no satisfaction
No satisfaction, no satisfaction, no satisfaction

I am unsatisfied, frustrated, in other words unfulfilled.

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I am only commenting to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the flavor in this answer. Reminds me of Bill Maher's rap translations. –  alexsome Aug 17 '10 at 17:03
    
To make some girl seems to have a meaning different from "to form relationships with the opposite sex", to me. –  kiamlaluno Feb 24 '11 at 17:23
    
Beautiful - thank you! –  Joe Blow Jun 13 '11 at 7:35
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It is almost certainly the first option, with the sense of "I can't get any satisfaction". Double negation with this type of meaning is pervasive in certain dialects and registers of English, and this is almost certainly one of those cases. It's not "wrong", linguistically speaking, it is just non-standard (so if non-standard = "wrong" to you, then fine).

While I can force my brain to parse the sentence in the sense of your second example, it is awkward and unnatural to this native speaker.

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+1 for the parse. Maybe it's because I'm a programmer the second example makes more sense to me, 'cause it's what parsing would result into :) –  GSerg Aug 16 '10 at 8:49
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It's improper grammar. The correct version would be "I can't get [any] satisfaction."

Mick Jagger is saying that he is unable acquire whatever it is that would satisfy him.

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It's worth noting that, in fact, Jagger implies later on that what would satisfy him is, in fact, "girlie action". Whether this refers to certain adult behaviors -- "action" with "girlies" -- or, for example, drawing magical ponies with colored pencils -- "actions" that are widely considered "girlie" -- is left for the listener to determine. –  DanM Aug 16 '10 at 20:08
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I think we need a spinoff question to clarify the meaning of "girly action." –  JohnFx Aug 16 '10 at 20:48
    
if you have to ask, you are never going to know. –  delete Aug 17 '10 at 13:29
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I've always heard it as "girl reaction". –  Dan Aug 22 '10 at 1:18
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@DanM,JohnFx: As user744 says, it's girl reaction. The singer isn't getting [positive] reactions from girls. Where I'm assuming "positive" means "of such a type as will lead to sex". –  FumbleFingers Dec 12 '11 at 23:28
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protected by RegDwigнt Aug 23 '12 at 21:51

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