I was reading a passage in Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and a character, a migrant farmer, says of another character's fighting ability:

"Nobody don't know what Slim can do".

And then a little later, a similar statement:

"Nobody can't tell what a guy'll do".

I'm quite familiar with slangy statements phrased like questions, such as: Don't nobody care, or Don't anybody want to hear that, or Don't anyone feel like talking to you, but the reversal of the first two words--which does not seem to change the meaning--sounds off.

My questions are, are constructions like

Don't nobody/anybody/anyone + verb


Nobody don't + verb

double negatives, and, if so, is that why the pieces (don't, nobody) can be moved around without changing the meaning?

  • That's the trouble with non-standard English - who decides where 'non-standard' becomes 'unacceptable' (and how do you punish migrant farmers / Steinbeck / ... if they overstep the mark?) – Edwin Ashworth May 27 '13 at 16:14
  • You seem to be assuming that these are from the same dialect. Of Mice and Men deals with migrant farmworkers in California in the Great Depression, and may have originated in Oklahoma and surrounding regions. The usual construction "don't nobody care" is from AAVE, which has a lot in common with dialects from the Deep South. Since I don't speak either AAVE or the California Great-Depression migrant farmworker dialect, I can't definitively answer this. But I know they speak different in Oklahoma and in the Deep South. – Peter Shor May 27 '13 at 20:10

"Don't nobody" is a double negative. "Don't anybody" isn't. They are analogous to "I don't have nothing" versus "I don't have anything".

Double negatives occur in some dialects of English, as well as "don't" for the third person instead of "doesn't": she don't come 'round no more.

"Don't anybody" is grammatical in standard English as an imperative:

Don't anybody move! The money or your lives! - "Ma Baker", Boney M.

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  • Grammatical in standard English? No it's not. From Yale University Grammatical Diversity Program at microsyntax.sites.yale.edu/negative-inversion : Negative inversion is often said to co-occur with negative concord in African American English. The co-occurrence typically refers to the availability of subjects headed by no, as in the (a) examples, and the unavailability of subjects headed by NPI any, as in the (b) examples. (18) a. Don't nobody break up a fight. (AAE; Labov 1972) b. *Don't anybody break up a fight. (AAE) – Edwin Ashworth May 27 '13 at 16:20
  • @EdwinAshworth I'm afraid the example isn't clear, because context is lacking. Is that supposed to be an imperative sentence? In that case, why is it a fight and not the fight? – Kaz May 27 '13 at 16:46
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    @EdwinAshworth: the asterisk in your quote means that "Don't anybody break up a fight" would not be used in in AAE. It doesn't say anything about its grammaticality in standard English. – Peter Shor May 28 '13 at 1:17
  • @EdwinAshworth: It looks like examples 11-14 bear on this. Note, however, that in West Texas English, the inverted word order is preferred when the only elements bearing negative morphology are the auxiliary and subject, as in (13). When more elements bear negative morphology, such as nothin' in (14), the non-inverted word order is possible. Can someone clarify this point about negative inversion and non-inverted alternatives? – tylerharms May 28 '13 at 7:04
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    @tylerhams: Examples 11-14 and the surrounding text say that in West Texas English, the word order of Steinbeck's quotes is wrong. One possibility is that the natural word order for these sentences is different in West Texas English and in 1930s California migrant farmworker English. Since these are two different non-standard dialects, what is correct in one could easily be incorrect in the other. The other possibility is that Steinbeck got it wrong. – Peter Shor May 29 '13 at 16:51

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