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"I leaked nothing to nobody" (around 3:42 in the video)

Is the sentence above from Susan Rice grammatically correct in standard American English (SAE)? Seems like it should be:

I leaked nothing to anybody/anyone.

If not SAE, is it maybe African American Vernacular English (AAVE)?

If not AAVE, would the double negative make it a positive? Maybe weasel wording or understatement (litotes)?

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    I'm sure someone will claim it's weasel wording, but it's a reasonably legitimate double negative, for informal speech, and it tends to be used to make the statement more emphatic. A little odd to hear it in what one would expect to be formal tone, but I'm not sufficiently aware of her normal speech patterns to say how odd it might be. – Hot Licks Apr 5 '17 at 1:49
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    Consider that "I ain't leaked nothing to nobody" would not be interpreted as weasel wording, but simply emphatic colloquial speech. I kind of suspect she was first considering saying that, then changed her mind, but did not "edit" her thought thoroughly before speaking – Hot Licks Apr 5 '17 at 1:52
  • Southern language isn't only AA, ..." I don't answer to nobody " in the mouth of a white rancher out in the old west wouldn't seem out of place – Tom22 Apr 5 '17 at 1:58
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    Listening to the audio recording of the statement makes it sound like she was abbreviating these two thoughts into one sentence: "I leaked nothing. I leaked to nobody." If she were writing her remarks as part of a speech I'm sure she would have worded it differently. – Andrew Brēza Apr 5 '17 at 2:03
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    "Nobody said it would be easy, and nobody was right."--President George Bush, 1992 – Xanne Apr 5 '17 at 3:29
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It's not a dialect thing, it is grammatical standard English.

The "double negative" rule applies to situations where you have two possible negation strategies, one being a negated auxiliary verb + a negative polarity item; the second being a content word with negative meaning.

(1) I have not leaked anything. [Negated auxiliary + NPI (anything)]
(2) I have leaked nothing. [Content word with negative meaning (nothing)]

The rule is that you can't use both strategies at the same time. Also, related is that using an NPI like anything or at all can't be used with a non-negated main verb:

*I have not leaked nothing.
*I have leaked anything.

Rice uses strategy (2), instead of strategy (1) (which would have been I didn't leak anything to anybody.). This is a more direct way of speaking and is well suited to the spoken medium.

  • So would you consider "Nobody did nothing" (with the sense of "Nobody did anything") to be standard? I think the situation is more complicated than you're making it out to be. – herisson Apr 5 '17 at 5:40
  • @sumelic "Nobody did nothing" only sounds grammatical (and standard) as a paraphrase of "Everyone did something." (in a context where someone has suggested that certain people did nothing, and the speaker wishes to refute the suggestion). You could also say "Nobody didn't do anything" with the same meaning. If "Nobody did nothing" is intended to mean "no one did anything," then it's ungrammatical. Sentences like "no one did anything" would fall outside of my analysis, since the auxiliary is not negated, but there is a NPI object. – jlovegren Apr 5 '17 at 17:22
  • I'm not sure I agree. The sentence in question would be immediately classed as weird thing usually said by Americans up on the Canadian west coast - definitely not a standard feature of English as a whole. – Anonym Apr 27 '17 at 1:58
  • @Anonym here is a quote from a parliamentarian in the British House of Commons, from 2001: In the words of the Minister of Public Works, Transport and Communications, there is "nothing for nobody" until Portugal complies with the directive: Jacques Delors suspended the aid because Portugal did not have its house in order: spy Strangers as a preliminary to any investigation of the question. – jlovegren Apr 27 '17 at 4:26
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"I leaked nothing to nobody" is not considered standard English, as far as I can tell. It is possible to use multiple negative words in a single sentence wtihout them cancelling out in some circumstances, but I don't think this is one of them. (A random example I can think of that would be standard is "I wouldn't sell the farm, not to him.")

  • Non-Standard Dialect: He didn't give nothing to nobody.
  • Standard: He didn't give anything to anybody.

(I-Language: An Introduction to Linguistics as Cognitive Science, by Daniela Isac & Charles Reiss)

"I leaked nothing to anybody" is perhaps "technically" correct, but it sounds unusual to me; certainly less natural than "I didn't leak anything to anybody."

It often sounds more natural for negation to be marked "at the sentence level" (by a negative auxiliary like "didn't," or an auxiliary accompanied by the negative particle "not") than with another specific negative word. This applies equally as far as I know to dialects with negative concord: the Yale Grammatical Diversity project overview of this phenomenon only covers cases where specialized negative words occur alongside sentential negation, not in place of it. It is only a short summary, however, and it does point to a further source you may wish to consult:

There is variation in the types of negative concord that different English varieties allow. For an overview, see Smith (2001).

Clause-level or verbal negation is also the most usual/"expected" state of affairs from a typological standpoint ("On the typology of negative concord," Johan van der Auwera & Lauren Van Alsenoy); that is, sentences structured like "John bought nothing" (taken from van der Auwera and Van Alsenoy) are uncommon worldwide. So I find sentences like the one you quote here, where clause-level negation is not used but multiple other negative words are used, to be interesting and somewhat surprising.

I did find other examples of this type of negative concord, if that's what it is (multiple negative words but no clause-level marker of negation), on Google Books:

You can see that the examples seem to come from a diverse group of speakers. Negative concord is a feature of AAVE, but it is not at all a distinctive feature; it's widespread in all sorts of varieties of English, particularly colloquial speech.

I don't find it at all plausible that the statement was intended as "weasel wording" or "litotes."

Note that people speaking spontaneously often don't produce grammatically correct, complete English sentences. False starts, self-interruptions and tangents are the norm. I find Andrew Brēza's suggestion ("Listening to the audio recording of the statement makes it sound like she was abbreviating these two thoughts into one sentence: "I leaked nothing. I leaked to nobody." If she were writing her remarks as part of a speech I'm sure she would have worded it differently.") very plausible.


Edit: I just noticed there is a Language Log post on the topic by Mark Liberman. He refers to it as "emphatic multiple negation." I would recommmend reading it and the comments below.


Unfortunately, I don't have access at the moment to a grammar that explains whether this exact use of negative words with each other is standard or non-standard. (The Isac and Reiss quote at the top of my post uses an example with a negative auxiliary "didn't".) However, here are some Google Books snippets that I found that I think back up my feeling that sentences with two specific negative words ("n-words") and no clausal negation like "Nobody did nothing" are cases of negative concord and not generally considered standard:

  • As Alison Henry points out, they are Positive Polarity Items in the strong sense that even in Negative Concord dialects, which allow, for instance Nobody did nothing as synonymous with Nobody did anything, the examples in (5) remain ... (Syntax at Santa Cruz, Volumes 1-3)

  • Juan never to nobody did nothing. Juan never did anything to anybody. The traditional grammars claim that the Negative words before and after the verb have to be different. Because this seems too obvious, it is better to claim that... (Chicago Linguistic Society. Regional Meeting - 1991)

  • For example: Nobody did nothing means everybody did something. The correct negative sentence is NObOdy did anything. (Test Your Grammar, Rachel Bladon)

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Whether standard or nonstandard, the statement does not not sound wrong, and the meaning is very clear.

It can be interpreted as two questions for the sake of clarity:

What did you leak? Whom did you leak it to?

I leaked nothing. I leaked it (nothing) to nobody.

Putting an imaginary comma makes the meaning very clear: "I leaked nothing, to nobody."

"I leaked nothing to nobody" is simply another way of saying "I didn't leak anything to anybody," whereas "I leaked nothing to anyone/anybody" would have been an awkward construction (though nor grammatically incorrect.)

What is most important here is that her meaning does not change whether 'anybody' or 'nobody' is used at the end, because she said "I leaked nothing" which is unequivocal and stands on its own legs; the sentence can end right there and be a complete statement for these purposes; since she leaked nothing, whether she leaked it 'to anybody' or 'to nobody' is semantically irrelevant.

The 'nobody' would have become significant as a denial only if she had said 'I leaked (something) to nobody' as in "I leaked the news to nobody" which would indeed have been a convoluted denial!

Since she 'leaked nothing' in the first place, substituting 'anybody' for 'nobody' cannot then imply that she leaked anything; and because the two independent negatives do not cancel each other out, "leaked nothing to nobody" can never mean "leaked something to somebody".

It is not a typical case of 'two negatives where there should be one' as in "you don't know nothing", and nor is it a subtle admission of having leaked something as in "I didn't leak nothing" which can (improbably) mean "I did leak something."

In this case the two independent negatives do not cancel each other out, but actually reinforce each other for an emphatic denial that (heard right) sounds natural and makes perfect sense.

  • The expert grammatical surgeons of EL & U might well dissect the sentence differently and give very different interpretations; I have only tried to understand it from the common-sense point of view and find it just fine! – English Student Apr 27 '17 at 1:32

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