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In Act I Scene I of The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare's character Salarino uses a double negative in the phrase Not in love neither?, is this grammatically wrong or was this acceptable at the time?

[Antonio is sad, his friend Salarino tries to cheer him up]

SALARINO
Why, then you are in love.
ANTONIO
Fie, fie!
SALARINO
Not in love neither? Then let us say you are sad,
Because you are not merry: and 'twere as easy
For you to laugh and leap and say you are merry,
Because you are not sad.

(Shakespeare.mit)

I have looked around a bit and in most modern and old Romance Languages, some Germanic Languages and Old English1 double negation is simply used to reinforce a negative or simply to make it grammatically correct, so it is possible that Shakespeare intended for it to mean a negative2 - as opposed to the more modern double negative = positive. However, from the context, it would seem that Shakespeare intends this to mean the modern equivalent of 'Not in love either?'; ruling out that answer.

Alternatively, this could be litotes, which is used to understate a piece of speech or simply a classic Shakespearian mistake.

Using this as context, would this sort of double negation be common or even understood?

Would it have been grammatically correct then?


Footnotes:

1: Honestly, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese , Greek and Latin, Afrikaans, Some dialects of Old English and Welsh

2: http://nfs.sparknotes.com/merchant/page_4.html 'translates' the Shakespeare to say You’re not in love either? backing up the negative intention view. (Thanks to @Keep these mind for raising this)

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    This 'modernises' it as "You’re not in love either?" – We oath to creation Oct 9 '16 at 16:15
  • @Keepthesemind Interesting, they see it as being a negative then. Thanks for the link, I'll add it in! – BladorthinTheGrey Oct 9 '16 at 16:17
  • Sure. But note that Googling for "Not in love either" shakespeare gives you 22,200 hits. – We oath to creation Oct 9 '16 at 16:19
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    I've compared the two searches, "not in love neither" Shakespeare: About 18,400 results and, as you say, "not in love either" Shakespeare: About 22,200 results, so there certainly is some disparity between them. – BladorthinTheGrey Oct 9 '16 at 16:26
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    Never bet against Shakespeare. – Werrf Jan 6 '17 at 20:26
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No, Shakespeare's double negative was not grammatically wrong. According to David & Ben Crystal, the rule that two negatives make a positive was not applied to most uses of language:

[T]he strict mathematical logic was used only in a few formal styles of expression.

A double negative was just a way of intensifying a negative. (One could say that this usage closer to the mathematical formula (-x) + (-x) = -2x.)

The idea that using a double negative always results in a positive became dominant through the works of prescriptive grammarians in the 18th century, for example Robert Lowth's book A Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762). (At least, this claim is made on the page Early Modern English (c. 1500 - c. 1800) on the website The History of English, which also mentions a few similar works.)

David & Ben Crystal also point out that Shakespeare even used triple negatives.

(See also my website for more examples of double negatives in Shakespeare's work.)

Update: curiousdannii pointed out in a comment that this is also known as negative concord. (The term is also mentioned in the Wikipedia article double negative.)

  • Thank you for answering; this contains the sort of detail I was looking for. – BladorthinTheGrey Jan 6 '17 at 22:33
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    Better to just call these "negative concord" - then the number of negatives doesn't matter. – curiousdannii Jan 7 '17 at 0:27
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The answer is that double negatives were grammatical in English (and still are in many varieties of English, though not in standard varieties).

Standard varieties of English (in every region, as far as I know) forbid them, but this is quite a recent phenomenon - sometimes ascribed to Robert Lowth in 1762.

  • So are you opting for the suggestion I made in the question that "Shakespeare intended for it to mean a negative - as opposed to the more modern double negative = positive." I had read that the double negative = positive idea was more recent but apparently in Germanic languages a double negative has always been seen as positive and is to be discouraged. – BladorthinTheGrey Oct 9 '16 at 18:43
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    The troubled question of "double negatives" is AFAIK confined to English. English like other languages has examples where negative elements can cancel out: the "not unhappy" construction, and specially marked examples like Pinker's "Try as I might, I can't get no satisfaction from this". But only about English do people make the specious claim that applying not and another word such as neither to the same phrase "means" a positive. Without special marking, "I didn't see nobody" means "I saw nobody" in English, as in other languages: it is perverse to claim otherwise. – Colin Fine Oct 9 '16 at 19:46
  • @Colin_Fine I think it is only fair that if you invoke a man's name, that you should include exactly what he stated, without compelling reason to do otherwise: Do you not agree? This is what Prof. Lowth wrote on the subject in A short introduction to English grammar: with critical notes. It's brief and public domain information. It's both public domain and briefly stated. Also note that print is from 1774, although there may be earlier versions. – Tonepoet Oct 9 '16 at 19:56
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    Thanks, @Tonepoet. That's interesting, because the passage he quotes from Milton does indeed seem to be a case of the negatives cancelling out. I am nevertheless convinced that such cases are exceedingly rare, and that, as I said in another comment, nearly every such use in speech is both intended and understood, even by those who disapprove, as having a negative meaning; which is why I described the claim that the meaning was positive as perverse. – Colin Fine Oct 9 '16 at 20:43
  • I think it's an exaggeration to say that interpreting "I didn't see nobody" as meaning "I saw somebody" is always perverse. This is a rare construction, but it doesn't seem especially artificial to me. The ambiguity between it and the negative-concord sentence seems similar to the ambiguity between e.g. "I won't eat anything" and "I won't eat (just) anything". – sumelic Jan 5 '17 at 16:36

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