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I teach an ESL Class for Spanish speakers. I've taught them the rules regarding "double negatives". Today, I had them translate the Spanish equivalent of "It isn't that he doesn't understand me." They pointed out the double negative & I'm not sure how to explain the contradiction. Can someone help?

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    What are the rules that you have taught them? I would give the basic "rule" about avoiding double negatives in English (I prefer the term "negative concord", although it's less popular) as something like "don't use two (or more) negative words to express one negative meaning". But your quoted sentence uses two negative words to express separate negations, so it does not contradict that rule. – sumelic Feb 12 at 2:02
  • Possible duplicate of Isn’t this sentence a case of double negative? – sumelic Feb 12 at 2:04
  • I can't get no satisfaction from any of the above responses! – Hot Licks Feb 12 at 2:39
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    The double negatives you’re trying to avoid are the ones which negate the same thing: I don’t not like hamburgers. This is one is negating two different things. (1. understand, and 2. the whole clause) – Jim Feb 12 at 2:48
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    @Jim: For Spanish, you'd be more concerned with the combination of "not" and "already negated" words like "nobody" or "nothing." This is because Spanish likes to use the equivalent construction as an emphatic (e.g. No tengo nada is just an emphasized form of Tengo nada, and they both mean "I have nothing" - A Spanish speaker learning English might try "I don't have nothing" instead). – Kevin Feb 12 at 3:47
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Double negatives are more complicated than just multiple negatives in a sentence negating each other. That's the case where teachers usually focus their efforts. But there's communication issues beyond that.

It isn't that he doesn't understand me.

has two negatives, but they're not countering each other. We can realize this pretty quickly if we remove both to consider the "straight" meaning.

It is that he understands me.

But it isn't that, either. You're talking about a problem, and in this case, he probably understands you, but that isn't the issue, and it wouldn't be the problem if he didn't understand you. You're concerned about an additional problem that's orthogonal to whether or not he understands you - but it still could be at least somewhat related.

This is technically a fine statement, grammatically speaking. But it is a little difficult to understand because the more negatives you have in a sentence, the harder it is to understand it. It could be better to say something like

Whether or not he understands

or

Regardless of whether he understands

so that it's more clear. However, that isn't how we commonly talk - I mean, apart from the autistic guy in the virtual room who has literally spent days thinking about this stuff. And that's probably a good thing, because I don't think it was necessarily a good use of my time.

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