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This question already has an answer here:

Is the phrase "Isn't there no need" considered a double negative and would resolve to a positive? Or is it considered an intensifier?

So would it resolve to "There is a need"? The full sentence that I am looking at says, "So isn't there no need for you to go back?"

marked as duplicate by user140086, anongoodnurse, Chenmunka, sumelic, jimm101 Feb 20 '16 at 0:09

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    Great question. I'm confused myself on that one. One could certainly phrase it as "Is there no need?" but the meaning changes. Looking forward to a definitive answer on this one... – M. E. Feb 17 '16 at 8:32
  • Sorry Rathony the link you gave me just redirected me to my own question. The previous link you gave also didn't really help me answer the question. – user160788 Feb 17 '16 at 8:43
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    Not a definitive answer, but "Isn't there no need" is not commonly used (AmE here, I have never heard it before); it is non-standard English. The correct phrase could be, "Is there no need...", "Is there not a need..." Or even, (a bit more complex, as "any" is a negative polarity in certain circumstances) "Isn't there any need..." If I encountered the phrase you quote, I would not assume a double negation, but rather a non-standars way of expressing "Isn't there any need..." – anongoodnurse Feb 17 '16 at 8:54
  • @medica Sorry, but I couldn't disagree more. There's nothing non-standard about the OP's sentence at all. Perhaps see my post. I don't disagree that it's an unusual sentence, but then negative yes/no questions are quite unusual anyhow. – Araucaria Feb 17 '16 at 9:48
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    @Araucaria - It's fine to disagree. It's just my opinion, and in a comment, with a qualification that it wasn't a definitive answer. I will defer to linguists most happily. But, there's no need (imo) to refute me in a comment when you're already going to or have posted an answer. What's the point? Also, don't we agree in the end? I, too, said they don't cancel each other out. I am really confused about your comment. – anongoodnurse Feb 17 '16 at 9:53
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Negative questions, in other words ones where the inverted auxiliary is negated tend to create an implicature that the speaker already has an opinion about the probable answer. We can consider them 'biased' in this respect. The following question, for example, may be taken to indicate that the speaker suspects (or has suspected until very recently) that Mary gave the book to the listener yesterday:

  • Didn't Mary give you the book yesterday?

In the Original Poster's example, the negation of the auxiliary is is used to convey that the speaker suspects (or suspected until just now) that the proposition in the rest of the clause is the case. It so happens in this example that the proposition that the speaker suspects is true is a negative one:

  • There's no need.

Notice that simple single negation in yes/no questions does not change the core meaning of a question at all:

  • Didn't she give it to you?

  • Did she give it to you?

There are no situations where the answer to the first question will be different from the answer to the second question. For this reason, there is no sense in which double negation can cancel itself out in questions. In normal declarative sentences, negation changes the actual core meaning of the sentence:

  • She gave me the book.
  • She didn't give me the book.

If we add further negation, the truth conditional meaning of the sentence will be the same as the non-negated sentence:

  • She didn't not give me the book.

But, as we have seen there is no real negation in questions to be cancelled out by further negation. However, a doubly negated question and a doubly negated declarative sentence have something in common. They both indicate that there is some negative proposition which has been previously entertained. In the Original Poster's example, it is the proposition that there is no need. In the book example above it is the idea that she didn't give me the book.

In answer to The Original Poster's question then, the two negations in the question do not cancel each other out in any way. Arguably the different negations have different functions. One is there to indicate some previously supposed idea, the other is to show that the idea is negative.

There is in fact no other way to do this apart from using double negation. Very often the non-truth conditional meaning of a sentence is as communicatively important as the truth-conditional meaning. This is the case with the Original Poster's example. The communication of the presupposition on the part of the speaker that there is no need is part of the suasive force of the question.

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    Did she give it to you? Did she give it to you? One of those should be a "Didn't", right? – Earthliŋ Feb 17 '16 at 10:55
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    Very well stated, @araucaria. I concurred from the moment I read it, but could not have articulated it nearly as well as you. It's the presupposition that renders the syntax valid. E.g.: say a nephew has stolen money from his aunt's purse. She notices the money is gone, and says, "Let's call the police." The nephew doesn't want her to. So he says, "Isn't there no need to call them? I'm sure it'll turn up." Granted, he could have said, "Is there really a need to call them?" instead. But the way it is phrased to me is indeed valid, because of exactly what you say. Brilliantly worded. Upvote! – M. E. Feb 17 '16 at 12:52
  • @Earthliŋ Thanks so much! Yes, exactly so :) Thank you. – Araucaria Feb 17 '16 at 22:05
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    @M.Z. Thanks, I wasn't sure whether I could communicate that at all :) – Araucaria Feb 18 '16 at 0:46
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This is a phenomenon called negative concord in which all negatable forms are negated if the sentence is negative. It is used in some non-standard english.

References:

Double negative

African American Vernacular English

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