7

Is "cannot not say" standard English?

In context, I would like to know whether "I cannot not say precisely what attracted them to the part of Giuliette" is grammatical.

Also, does the phrase "cannot not say" interfere with the double-negation story?

2
  • 2
    "I am compelled to say..." is much clearer, FWIW. Commented Nov 9, 2013 at 0:38
  • 2
    I'm not sure what you mean by "standard English", but there are plenty of ways we can say things that might be categorized as "grammatical yet awkward." This seems to be one of them. I won't say it's illegal, but I will say it could be improved.
    – J.R.
    Commented Nov 9, 2013 at 8:56

2 Answers 2

9

"cannot not say" would only rarely be used in English, and only in very specific circumstances. In particular, this is not a simple double negative. "cannot not" does not mean the same as "can", it means "must". It also carries a connotation that not saying is the expected or default action.

"I must say precisely what attracted them to the part of Giuliette" is probably not the message you are intending to convey here, so I expect that there is one extra negative in your sentence.

  • "I can take action" means "I am able to take action"
  • "I cannot take action" means "I am not able to take action"
  • "I cannot not take action" means "There is some reason that not taking action is expected here, but I must take action"
8

"I cannot not say X" means "I am unable not to say X" or, in other words, "I am not able to refrain from saying X".

When I heard that ruffian yelling obscene curses at a small child, I just couldn't not say anything, you know?

"I cannot not say precisely what attracted them to the part of Giuliette" is grammatical, and it states "I am unable to refrain from saying precisely what attracted them to the part of Giuliette".

If that is not the intended meaning, then it is an inappropriate selection of grammar.

4
  • 1
    +1 for the fact that you've used italics to indicate that in speech, the "second" not would invariably be heavily stressed. Also because your specific example reflects common practice, in that the first not would usually be contracted to n't in speech. So far as I'm concerned, to a first approximation, language is speech, to which the written form is nothing but a minor adjunct. Commented Nov 9, 2013 at 0:40
  • 1
    It's not minor for a deaf person who can't lip-read. Commented Nov 9, 2013 at 6:00
  • @FumbleFingers Is this correct to say?: "He didn't decide not to eat"
    – Boyep
    Commented Feb 5, 2020 at 11:16
  • 1
    @Boyep: Sure. And any of those words (except to) can be given exaggerated stress, to focus on a different aspect of the assertion. For example, stressing decide there would probably imply that he's not eating, but this isn't by his choice (it's because somebody else, or maybe just the situation he's in, prevents him from being able to eat). Commented Feb 5, 2020 at 13:42

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.