Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair

(Mother to Son", by Langston Hughes)

As per my knowledge we can't use Two Negative words in a clause or a sentence .I did research But could find anything . Could anyone tell me how the author has used two negative. IF THERE IS ANY RULE PLEASE ELABORATE .AND ONE REQUEST PLEASE EXPLAIN ME THE MEANING IF THE SENTENCE

  • See also Usage of “ain't”? – herisson Aug 8 '18 at 19:56
  • I'm not sure what you've been taught, but there are two kinds of 'double negative' that native speakers often use, and they're both OK, but in different ways such that you may not want to use them. One kind is the very informal "ain't no" (and similar). "I ain't no thief" is the correct way to say "I am not a thief" in certain English dialects. It looks like two negatives, but really it just means one. You do not want to use it in regular speech or in writing. As a language learner I would suggest that you never say this (which ironically I suppose is just like saying 'you cannot use this'). – Mitch Aug 8 '18 at 21:17
  • The second kind of double negative is usually only used in formal speech in which the negatives are very logical and therefore cancel out. "I will never not like ice cream" means I will always like ice cream. That is perfectly OK in formal speech/writing for the literary effect of over- or understatement. This may be something you want to avoid until you have a more confident command of English. – Mitch Aug 8 '18 at 21:30
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    "As per my knowledge we can't use Two Negative words in a clause or a sentence" There is no such rule. You have been misled by ignorant teachers. – user184130 Aug 8 '18 at 22:39

In English there are differing usages of 'double negatives' that you describe in your question. People can often use it in a joking and playful way, often to obscure information, for instance riddles and jokes. This should usually be obvious from tone of voice, behaviour, context and so on.

In the example you cite, and in the majority of cases in which double negatives are used, it should not be taken literally. That's to say, the confusing logical structure of the sentence is not intentional, like it would be in, say, a riddle. Instead, it is a common mistake common in many dialects, and should basically be ignored.

If we parse the following commonly used phrase:

"I ain't done nothing wrong."

We would find that the literal meaning is that the person in question has done something wrong. This is absolutely not the intention of the speaker, unless this is an uncharacteristic phrase to them in which case it may be to wriggle out of guilt by obscuring the true meaning of their sentence. Instead it should be read simply as if the author is saying "I haven't done anything wrong.".

If we take a look at the specific example you cite:

"Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair."

This is again a phrasing common to particular dialects. To me it sounds more American than English, but it is not possible to tell exactly. To firstly find the meaning of the actual logic of the sentence, we apply the same technique as above: we ignore the double negatives, and take it as a single negative.

The sentence then becomes:

"Life has not been a crystal stair for me."

The bit about 'a crystal stair' is simply a metaphor for a perfect life, and so the sentence really means that for whomever is speaking, life has not been perfect for them.

In fact, in the poem from which your phrase comes, it is likely used as a warning from the mother to the son, warning of the hardship to come in adolescence and adulthood (or simply life in general).

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  • I don't believe anyone would parse such a structure for the "literal" meaning you claim. It is a standard form of emphasis in colloquial speech. – user184130 Aug 15 '18 at 22:58
  • @JamesRandom What specifically are you referring to? I didn’t offer advice on writing here, the sentences I wrote were just to help explain my point of how to approach double negatives for someone apparently unfamiliar with the concept. – Benjamin Aug 18 '18 at 9:44
  • You said "If we parse the following commonly used phrase ... We would find that the literal meaning ..." – user184130 Aug 18 '18 at 10:07
  • I have to agree with @JamesRandom. When it comes to colloquial usage, "I ain't done nothing wrong" is not an admission of guilt. It is a claim of innocence, irksome as it may be to the prescriptivists out there. – Lumberjack Aug 21 '18 at 0:01
  • @Lumberjack The message I was attempting to convey is that if you were to take it at face value that is the meaning, but I then explain that this is NOT how one should read these colloquial phrases. I apologise if that is not clear. – Benjamin Aug 21 '18 at 19:29

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