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An answer to the stackexchange question I've just been bitten by a rattlesnake; how, exactly, do I “keep calm”? includes the following advice:

The trick is to not try to tell yourself not to think about the bad things1, but instead tell yourself to think about something else. Tell yourself to think about what you need to do now to get proper care and treatment. Tell yourself to think about what you will do to celebrate your recovery. Tell yourself to think about something mundane, like your job or your favorite TV show or that hobby project you've got going.

and has the footnote:

1Look everyone! A double negative used properly.

Does the term "double negative" have a formal definition? (It seems to have a tag at least.) If so, is this one? If so, is it used properly?


From what I recall being taught quite a long time ago, a double negative is the negation of two words in a row, or nearly so, with the intent of a single negative. For example

That's not no proper way to negate.

versus

That's not a proper way to negate.

In my original, quoted snake-bite example above, a negation is used twice, and it is used intentionally both times to arrive at the intended meaning. As helpfully pointed out below, The Oxford Dictionary Online says:

  1. A negative statement containing two negative elements...

1.1 A positive statement in which two negative elements are used to produce the positive force...

The first does not specify (to me at least) if the desired outcome is positive or still negative, and the second mentions "positive force" but I don't think it means the double negative is intended to result in a positive result. Rather I think "positive force" means a positive emphasis on the negative statement.

At this point I've gone way past my limits of understanding of the English language in the hopes that it demonstrates an honest attempt at doing research into the question. While I'd love to understand if there is more than one kind of double negative, I'm primarily asking about the quoted phrase.

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    ODO gives a balanced analysis of the strong collocation/compound noun usages. But it wouldn't be incorrect to use the string in maths say, merely to indicate two negative markers { -(-1) } (sorry I can't 'superscript' to show negative marker rather than minus sign usage). – Edwin Ashworth Mar 10 '17 at 11:47
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    "Double negative" is a confused and confusing term. There is no formal definition. Some people understand it to include standard constructions like "It's not that I think you shouldn't go...," other people don't. A better, less misleading linguistic description is "negative concord," which is non-standard and not present in the example sentence. – sumelic Mar 10 '17 at 14:47
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    People, people, people. It. Was. A. Joke! (But flattered to have inspired a cross-site follow up.) – cobaltduck Mar 10 '17 at 15:27
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    @uhoh - There's a handful of us that get around. I'm active on maybe 4-5 SEs, and less so on a dozen more. You should see some of the craziness over at Worldbuilding. – cobaltduck Mar 10 '17 at 15:52
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    The way this OP expanded his/her question with research, in response to a comment, was ideal -- a model of what to do. I hope that uhoh will return often. – ab2 Mar 10 '17 at 20:13
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For those that might be interested in a traditional understanding of "double negative", here it is:

NEVER use a double negative except to created a positive.

As a boy I was not taught anything about "double negatives" but the above "rule".

I would be satisfied were that rule generally observed.
So

You don't owe me nothing

would mean you owe me something.

This "rule" may well be out of fashion, and, I think, the result can be chaos in reading some things.

In English, I will not allow anyone to present me with any writing that employs a "double" negative" that suggests a negative,

The trick is to not try to tell yourself not to think about the bad thing

The statement above has three actions defining "The trick is": to try, to tell yourself and to think about .

But, the two infinitives to tell and to think are tied to to try. To try is negated by not. and to think about is negated by another not.
So:

The trick is to not try to tell yourself (and) not try not to think about the bad thing

there is no double negative as "not try not to think" are two actions. Both are negated by a single negative.

  • the way to parse this is: [the trick is to not] [tell yourself not to think about the bad thing]. Not really sure how you got to the last block quote. – Yorik Mar 10 '17 at 21:33
  • @ Yorik...had to get "to try" in.....you are no doubt right. – J. Taylor Mar 10 '17 at 22:04
  • Thank you for your answer! I just noticed I hadn't already accepted, sorry about that! I think what happened here is that I simply got too confused by the negatives and decided to come back later and re-read, and then didn't. I can pretty much understand all of your answer now. I know it's not terribly complicated, but for some reason too much negation just leaves me wondering "so what is true then?" and then things go down hill from there. – uhoh Jun 20 '17 at 19:59

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