Me and my friend were talking about grades and I said

Grades don't mean shit.

and we had some more debate and now we are arguing whether that sentence is a example of a sentence with double negatives in it !

  • 1
    Possibly not truly a double negative since it is only when "shit" translates directly to "nothing" that it is double negative – mplungjan Mar 31 '14 at 9:31
  • Yes, and no. :) -- As another poster had already mentioned, there does seem to be the use of negative concord in your example (e.g. "He didn't say nothing"). Your example sentence is intended to mean the same thing as "Grades mean shit/nothing". And yet, the speaker then inserts an extra negation to reinforce the negative meaning that already exists in your sentence--thus, negative concord which is often used in informal conversation and also in non-standard dialects. (Note that the term "double negative" is rather ambiguous in meaning.) – F.E. Apr 1 '14 at 16:08

It is not a double negative. There is exactly one instance of negation in it, don't. You can't argue that shit equals to nothing, because you could just as well argue that it equals to anything. It is a negative polarity item alright, but only because anything in that position is a negative polarity item.

Indeed, there is no difference between nothing and anything in that position in the first place other than that one happens to be Standard English and the other doesn't, which is just a historical happenstance. Both no- and any- serve the exact same purpose, you have to use one or the other, and it is just pure chance which one Standard English opted for. It could have been exactly the other way round. So in a way, shit in this construction is a blessing because it uses neither, and thus elegantly sidesteps the whole issue.

  • Right. If "negative polarity item" is a new term for you, you can find explanations here and a list of English NPIs here to go with the Wikipedia article that RegDwigнt included. They were only discovered in the 1960s, so you didn't hear about them in grammar school for sure. – John Lawler Mar 31 '14 at 14:21

It seems that the negative conveyed by "don't" in effect negates the intended meaning, which appears to be that "grades" are meaningless. Yet with the single negative the statement effectively says the "grades" do mean something. Hence the suspicion that there is a double negative there. The single negative I think confuses the intended meaning.

  • +1. Yes, that was what I was kinda thinking too -- negative concord. E.g. "He didn't say nothing." – F.E. Apr 1 '14 at 16:00

No it's not a double negative.

The problem is that you could be thinking that shit is a word with a negative meaning, but it could mean anything.

For example

Is that your shit?

This is why some people don't get into the "modern" way of speaking, with descriptions such as cool, shit (and similar), and the much overused awesome. As used, these words don't mean anything.

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