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In the 2016 film Ghostbusters Dan Aykroyd states:

I ain't afraid of no ghost!

To which a lady who looks like Jennifer Anniston replies:

That's a double negative! That means you ARE afraid of ghosts!

Is this interpretation technically correct? I would've thought that a literal interpretation would've implied that he does not fear the absence of ghosts (or the absence of a ghost, or the ghost), rather than that he fears ghosts.

Which is correct?

marked as duplicate by Edwin Ashworth, MetaEd Oct 14 '16 at 22:32

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    Why on earth did this get downvoted? – AleksandrH Oct 14 '16 at 20:54
  • @AleksandrH but you haven't upvoted? – phoog Oct 14 '16 at 20:59
  • another example in American pop culture xkcd.com/1576 – user662852 Oct 14 '16 at 21:28
  • @phoog I don't see how that's relevant to someone downvoting a question without explaining. – AleksandrH Oct 14 '16 at 21:29
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The lady's line is (probably*) doubly wrong.

First, that's not what this construction means (as pretty much any native speaker knows). The presence of two negative elements in the man's sentence is due to negative concord, not the presence of two separate semantic negations. Here are some resources describing negative concord in modern-day varieties of English: grammar.about.com, Yale Grammatical Diversity Project: English in North America.

Second, as you point out, even if we do ignore negative concord when interpreting the sentence, we cannot logically infer that the man "is afraid of ghosts."

If the sentence has two semantic negations, it should be logically equivalent to

"It is false that I am afraid of no ghost."

I can only think of two logically valid interpretations for this:

  1. The one you mention, where "no ghost" is taken as meaning "the absence of a ghost." In that case, the sentence doesn't say anything about whether the man is afraid of the presence of ghosts. He might be, or he might not be: the sentence doesn't say.

  2. The one where "I am afraid of no ghost" is taken to mean "There is no ghost of which I am afraid." Under this interpretation, what the lady said is almost correct, but still not logically justified. When we're dealing with countable nouns like "ghost," the logical negation of "There is no" is "There is at least one." Therefore, "It is false that there is no ghost of which I am afraid" logically implies "It is true that there is at least one ghost of which I am afraid." The lady would have been correct under this interpretation if she had said "That means you ARE afraid of at least one ghost."

*The lady's statement could be considered "technically" true (so only wrong once) if it were possible to interpret the original sentence as meaning "There is no ghost of which I am not afraid," but I don't think that's grammatically possible. I guess "I love no ghost" means "There is no ghost that I love," so maybe if you consider "ain't afraid of" to constitute a single idea equivalent to a verb like "love", you could interpret "I ain't afraid of no ghost" as "[I ain't afraid of] [no ghost]" = "There is no ghost that [I ain't afraid of]", but that interpretation seems very strained to me.

  • Your link is a great explanation but the examples are all from the US; this obscures the fact that negative concord exists throughout the English-speaking world. – phoog Oct 14 '16 at 15:36
  • @phoog: That's true; the link is N.A.-specific. Unfortunately, I don't know of a resource that describes the prevalence of this construction in other regions. It does mention though that "Negative Concord is a widespread phenomenon across many varieties of English." – sumelic Oct 14 '16 at 20:31
  • I think that 16.3k confers a responsibility to check for likely duplicates. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 14 '16 at 21:07
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Absolutely incorrect interpretation. The "That's a double negative! That means you ARE afraid of ghosts!" is funny, but not generally NOT interpreted that way. "Ain't afraid of no ghosts" is just a regional structure.

If instead Dan had said "I ain't NOT afraid of ghosts," that is a double negative. But not funny.

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    Good point in that last line! +1 Where is it regional to, though? Or is it more of just colloquial vs. proper? – Hack-R Oct 14 '16 at 1:51
  • @Hack-R "Ain't" is generally considered informal and "improper" and typically used in the South. See Wikipedia for more details. – Laurel Oct 14 '16 at 14:55
  • @Laurel in response to "typically used in the South": on the subject of ain't in the US, the article you link to says it is "found throughout the United States, including in Appalachia, the South, New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the Upper Midwest." It goes on to say that it is "to be contrasted with other folk usages such as y'all, which is confined to the South region of the United States." It's also worth noting that "Ain't is found throughout the English-speaking world across regions and classes": it's not in the least an American word. – phoog Oct 14 '16 at 15:29
  • @phoog It is commonly associated with the South: "Ain't is in common usage of educated Southerners." Also, Ghost Busters happens in NYC, so it is reasonable to assume an American perspective. – Laurel Oct 14 '16 at 16:20
  • @Laurel "Ain't" is commonly associated with the entire English-speaking world, of which the southern US is a part. "House" is also in common usage of educated southerners, but I wouldn't say that "house" is "typically used in the South." To say that something is "typically used" somewhere implies that most usage of the thing occurs in that place, which in this case is wrong. – phoog Oct 14 '16 at 16:22
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It would seem, in this context, that "no" is a colloquial synonym of "any," which is commonly paired with the contraction "ain't." Another example being, "It ain't no thing." I would wager that standard negation principles do not fit the context because, it seems to me, the change is phonological and not semantic. "Isn't...any..." becomes "ain't...no..." because "ain't ... any..." creates clashing stresses. Spoken American English goes to great lengths, grammatically speaking, to reduce the impact of clashing stresses.

So, semantically, the sentence, "I ain't afraid of no ghosts." Is equivalent to, "I am not afraid of any ghosts."

  • I agree with this of course, but I'm asking for more of the technical / literal interpretation – Hack-R Oct 14 '16 at 1:49
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    The technical/literal interpretation is that the "double negative rule" is a zombie. There are many situations in which negatives do not cancel out. It's much more complicated than what they tell you in grade school. – John Lawler Oct 14 '16 at 14:56
  • @JohnLawler in particular, the double negative rule is appropriate for a certain register or under certain style rules. It is fine to teach children not to use double negatives when writing academic essays, for example. But that's not the same as saying that anybody who ever speaks a double negative is somehow in the wrong. – phoog Oct 14 '16 at 15:32
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Simple rule of thumb:

If the context is AAVE or hillbilly speak, then a double negative (or triple, etc., negative) is often simply a negative.

Otherwise, a double negative is NOT a negative.

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    Surely there are other contexts in which a double negative is just a negative (any colloquial speech from any region comes to mind). But what is a double negative in other contexts? – phoog Oct 14 '16 at 15:33

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