In a BBC Documentary about Brexit, an interviewee stated his reason for voting out as following:

We are giving to some of the eastern Europeans who come in here at that time. they have more priority than I did. I was standing in the queue. and they said, sorry, there is nothing we can do for you. These guys who have just come in with nothing from another country. Yes by all means help them, but I was basically waiting for someone to do something.

And I never had nothing.

(BBC 2016 Why We Voted Leave: Britain Speaks. see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o7kjg4nXsYA after 07 min 19 sec)

It seems to me in this context that "I never had nothing" is same as "I never had anything". But double negation should make affirmation. How could they two be the same?

  • Many people use double negatives in everyday speech. This piece by Pullum on African American Vernacular English addresses double negatives starting on p. 10 of the pdf. To summarize: although not not A equals A in formal logic, this is "completely irrelevant" to the grammar of negation. This "negative concord" negation rule certainly does not imply the affirmative, and it is not even illogical or ungrammatical: it is just a different grammar, one used in Italian, AAVE, and Cockney English. Fascinating article to boot. Jul 25, 2016 at 3:20
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    This is what's called "Negative Concord", and it's the most common way of indicating the focus of a negative in languages of the world. Like French Je ne regrette rien (lit: I not regret nothing) 'I don't regret anything'. English is unusual in that it uses negative polarity items instead of negative concord. Jul 25, 2016 at 3:42
  • The 2nd negative in this case is not a logical negative but an intensifying negative, i.e. two of the same thing means that thing is amplified.
    – user180089
    Jul 25, 2016 at 4:54

2 Answers 2


You'll have to dispense with the idea that English grammar works like formal logic in which each negation reverses the sense. The meaning of a double negative depends upon the context. Consider the following exchange:

Q: I understanding that growing up you had nothing. Is that true?
A: No, as a child, I never had nothing. My family was poor but not destitute.

The response is a denial that the family had absolutely no resources.

The aggrieved response of the interviewee, on the other hand, the second negative is an intensifier, the interviewee meaning that he really had nothing. This can be extended to

I never had nothing, nohow and in no way

without changing the meaning.

Grammar can take you only so far; context is everything.


Informally, people often use double negation as a means of intensifying the negation.

A classic example is the Rolling Stones lyric "I can't get no satisfaction." The same thing is happening with your example of "I never had nothing."

Regarding this use of double negation as an intensifier of negation, Wikipedia writes:

some double negatives may resolve to a positive; others resolve to intensify the negative clause within a sentence. For example:

  • I didn't go nowhere today.
  • I'm not hungry no more.
  • You don't know nothing.

This use ain't no ways uncommon.


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