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Today’s edition of the New York Times (December 16, 2014) carries an article written by Mark Bittman under the headline “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” It begins with the following passage:

“What’s more depressing, gutting progressive moves in school nutrition or gutting progressive moves in restaurant meal labeling? Neither. What’s truly depressing is the “cromnibus,” the continuing resolution just passed to fund the government — which contains a wide variety of sometimes obscure and often corrupt riders, and signals the start of plundering just about every good piece of legislation you can think of, including school nutrition.”

I was a bit puzzled by the expression, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” Isn’t this a double negative, which almost 65 years ago in high school I learned was an affirmative statement?

Is “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet” a common English expression to feature as the headline of one of the U.S.'s leading newspapers? What’s wrong with saying “You’ve seen nothing yet” or “You haven’t seen anything yet”? Can I say to my friend who's never traveled abroad, "You ain't seen nothin' yet"?

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    Try googling "double negative as an intensifier". Despite what your English teachers wanted you to believe its use is very common colloquially. – Octopus Dec 17 '14 at 7:34
  • In addition to the valuable answers I received from our colleagues, I found the definition and examples of "double negative" including "You ain't nothin yet" provided in the Free Dictionary comprehensible through the search I made after posting this question. – Yoichi Oishi Dec 17 '14 at 22:53
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    I ain't never gonna be able to hear this phrase again without having to sing this song. – fredsbend Dec 18 '14 at 1:30
  • "You ain't seen nothin' yet" is fine, but "wide variety" makes me wince. – bof Dec 18 '14 at 7:42
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It's a common, longstanding American slang idiom intended to convey that no matter what you've seen, what you are about to see will far top it (whether for good or for bad!). It has associations with pop-music and black American culture and expression, but it's a little dated --it has a retro feel to it these days.

Deliberately ungrammatical constructions are often used in pop music and advertising slogans because they are more memorable, convey a sense of "flavor" and seem more fresh and immediate. In particular, ain't is often used as an intensifier of the negative rather than a reversal of it (the use of double negatives to intensify rather than neutralize negativity is incorrect in "standard" English, but common in black American dialect and many other non-standard English dialects).

"You haven't seen anything yet" does have the same superficial meaning, but utterly lacks the attitude of bravado and over-the-top exaggeration. If you tell your friend who hasn't traveled "you ain't seen nothing yet," you are boasting to him about the wonders that await him. On the other hand, if you tell him "you haven't seen anything yet," you're just belittling his past experiences. The latter expression is literal, whereas the slang expression is promotional.

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    +1 but I think that double negatives are not incorrect in Standard English. They can be used to good effect to emphasize a contradictory statement in a way that a simple affirmative statement can't. – Jim Dec 17 '14 at 5:25
  • @Jim Good point, I'll edit to clarify. – Chris Sunami Dec 17 '14 at 5:33
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    Standard English? Is that a universally accepted term, and if so, how is it defined? Otherwise, talking about whether an expression is acceptable or not in Standard English is in many cases nonsensical, and saying an expression is or isn't acceptable in Standard English is often just trying to foist a personal point of view on others. I'd say that the quirky/punchy “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet” is perfectly acceptable in many registers, but needs scare quotes or other careful handling in the most formal registers. It would appear outlandish in a paper on organometallic chemistry, for instance. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 17 '14 at 6:50
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    @EdwinAshworth Have a read through this for the definition: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standard_English – DBedrenko Dec 17 '14 at 9:17
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    @Grim: It's entirely possible that "Standard English" most commonly is used to mean "the formal register of my personal idiolect", albeit it might have other more technical definitions useful for specific purposes. I think Brits are just as guilty as Americans of abusing the notion, but we're more likely to use a term like "the Queen's English" or "correct English" than "Standard English" :-) – Steve Jessop Dec 17 '14 at 12:44
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I was a bit puzzled with the expression, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” Isn’t this a double negative, which I learnt to be an affirmative statement in high school almost 70 years ago?.

The meaning is akin to "you haven't yet seen the best, most interesting, or most exciting part".

"You ain't seen nothing yet" is a common expression -- it shows up a lot of different places. For example, James Brown's 1967 hit "Soul Man":

Got what I got, the hard way

And I'll make it better each and every day

So honey don't you fret

'Cause you ain't seen nothin' yet

Here the singer is telling his "honey" not to worry about their present condition (presumably not very good) -- because the best is yet to come.

This usage, as a reassuring or motivational statement, is very common. Here's the CEO of telecommunications company telling investors that despite poor performance, they should be patient, because exciting changes are ahead:

Sprint looks poised to continue upping the ante, with [Sprint CEO Marcelo] Claure teasing more promotions and discounts to come. "You ain't seen nothing yet," Claure said, adding that the next two to three weeks has him "extremely excited."

As for the other part of your question,

What’s wrong with saying “You’ve seen nothing yet” or “You haven’t seen anything yet”?

Grammatically speaking, "you haven't seen anything yet" is a better choice (the other alternative you suggested, "you've seen nothing yet", seems a bit condescending).

But that's a very dry, robotic way of saying it. Such is the nature of English idioms (or idioms in any language, really): they add color and connotation beyond their literal meanings and constructions.

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    Also B.T.O. had a hit in the 70's with that exact title. – Octopus Dec 17 '14 at 7:31
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    @Octopus: Yep! James Brown's usage predates BTO's by quite a bit, though. – John Feminella Dec 17 '14 at 19:10
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    I'm not sure why people are attributing this to James Brown or BTO - the phrase is famously associated with Jimmy Durante. However, I think something close to the expression possibly dates back much further. (Still trying to confirm an attribution to Cervantes). Edit: it's here as "Thou hast seen nothing yet." – Glen_b Dec 18 '14 at 0:00
  • @Glen_b: I wasn't saying that was the original usage -- but both James Brown and BTO did say it in different contexts. – John Feminella Dec 18 '14 at 0:28
  • @Glen_b That's not a double neg though? Just the same as "You have seen nothing yet", isn't it? – OJFord Dec 18 '14 at 3:34
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Although grammatically incorrect, the phrase has gained a sort of acceptability through being repeated over the years. I seem to remember something along those lines from an old film ('The Jazz Singer'?) about Al Jolson.

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In this context ain’t is used as part of a figure of speech and is acceptable. Ain’t is the vernacular form of am not and is considered poor grammar.

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Some sort of document from the US Congress, dated 1877:

Well, you see how we have commenced it, but you ain't seen nothing yet to what you will see before this is over.

A few others around that date, and then the references come hot and heavy beginning in the mid-1920s. Apparently some popular songs in the late 1910s employed the phrase "You ain't heard nothin' yet", and the singer Al Jolson picked it up as a catch phrase (and famous line in the 1927 movie The Jazz Singer). It was an obvious swap from "heard" to "seen" and back, once the phrase became idiomatic.

You can argue that it's wrong, but it's been part of the American idiom for over 100 years.

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