I created this sentence:

For your ancestors, the most dangerous threat to survival was not not getting the social vibe of your group.

I am confused because, as grammar websites say, double negatives create a positive one. So this means that "For your ancestors, the most dangerous threat to survival was getting the social vibe of your group". And the meaning of that one is not the same as the first one because "getting the social vibe of your group" is not a dangerous threat, just "not getting it" is not dangerous.

I am really confused. Is there any other sentences that you guys can suggest? I am really getting tired of this English thing lol, seems like a complex language. Also if you encounter any mistakes, feel free to tell me because I am a foreigner.

  • It looks like a misprint to me - I suspect there should be only one 'not'. – Kate Bunting Feb 18 '19 at 9:09
  • You should make no assumptions about the grammaticality of anything you read online. The informal expression "not getting the social vibe of your group sounds like it has come from a blog rather than from a proofread academic study, and such a text may well contain various typos or other inaccuracies of language. – Shoe Feb 18 '19 at 9:42
  • Actually i created the first sentence. I want an alternative sentence which has the same meaning with the first example. – ikigai20 Feb 18 '19 at 10:48
  • If you mean that "not getting the social vibe of your group" was of less importance than it is now I would rework the sentence. I suggest "Not getting the social vibe of their group was not the greatest threat to your ancestors' survival". This retains both negatives but separates them so there is no longer a double negative. – BoldBen Feb 18 '19 at 11:32
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    That's an interesting sentence. At first I thought that the reason why they didn't cancel was just because the two not's applied to different verbs. But in a sentence like I wasn't not getting X they do cancel. Now, in this other example was is really an auxiliary verb. The verb is really was getting. However, in your sentence was isn't serving as an auxiliary verb, but a verb of its own. In Spanish that was would be a ser (the transcendental form of to be) instead of estar (the circumstantial form of to be), which makes it easier to detect that they are two separate verbs. – mama Feb 18 '19 at 12:37

You are looking for a rephrasing of the sentence in which the double negative is removed—but which results in a different meaning than simply turning it into a positive.

For your ancestors,the most dangerous threat to survival was not not getting the social vibe of your group.

Compare the following two sentences. The first is the interpretation you suggest. The second is an alternative, where the second not phrase is replaced by something with the same meaning—and to which I've added something else for additional emphasis:

  1. For your ancestors,the most dangerous threat to survival was getting the social vibe of your group.

  2. For your ancestors, the most dangerous threat was not failing to get the social vibe of your group [but failing to observe the presence of predators].

If you simply replace the two negatives with a positive, the meaning of the sentence is completely different than if you replace the second negative of not getting with the synonymous negative of failing to get.

This results because of the difference in parsing. The first parsing is concerned with (not not) getting, while the second is concerned with not (not getting).

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    not (not getting) is the same as not not getting. The form, which is present in the OP's and your second sentence is (was not) (not getting), where the negation of was is applied post-fixed while the negation of getting is pre-fixed. – mama Feb 18 '19 at 23:08
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    If the verb getting were isolated, then the double negation would resolve to affirmation. In the original sentence is key that there is another verb was and that the subject's meaning doesn't quite allow to interpret that was getting is being used as single auxiliary+verb construction, but as two separate verbs, one in the main clause, and one in a subordinate clase. – mama Feb 18 '19 at 23:17
  • All you said is correct except for that small imprecision at the end. – mama Feb 18 '19 at 23:35
  • @mama Consider another sentence: Not not getting something sucks. This can become either (1) getting something sucks or (2) failing to get something sucks. It's not related to any particular verb before or after not not getting. (In this case, there is no other verb—only an adverb.) It may not make intuitive sense to parse it as getting something sucks but it's still possible. In fact, if it were not not getting something bad sucks, then the reverse would be true. The assumption is one of intent—but it's still an assumption. – Jason Bassford Feb 19 '19 at 2:23
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    The sentence Not not getting something sucks cannot resolve to a single negation. (2) will never be the meaning of that sentence. – mama Feb 19 '19 at 2:34

The cancellation of negatives occurs when they are applied successively onto the same target ¬¬p = p. In symbolic logic the restrictions of the formal language and inference laws help you inequitably to determine whether a negative act on top of another. For example in ¬(p and ¬ q) the parentheses (and DeMorgan's law) allow you to determine that this is equivalent to (¬p or ¬¬q) in which the negations acting on q cancel to (¬p or q).

The grammar in natural language is more flexible and allows both syntactic and semantic ambiguities. In your sentence the two words was and getting could be two independent verbs or it could be the auxiliary+verb was getting. If we ignore the nature/meaning of the nominal elements in that sentence then there is no way to tell which of the two options is intended.

X was getting Y

could be that X was in the process of getting Y, or it could be saying that getting Y was a property of Y.

Now, adding the two negations remains ambiguous.

X was not not getting Y or X wasn't not getting Y

could still mean either that X was not in the process of not getting Y or it could mean that not getting Y was not a property of X. This is because in one option one assumes that the two negations act on the verb was getting.

Finally, in your original sentence there help deduce that we are in the second option.

1) It is in general awkward to want to express an affirmation by doubly negating to. Specially in this case which would require doubly negating a verb that is already relatively complex, which uses two words.

2) The particular nature/meaning of the subject the most dangerous threat to survival is unlikely to be performing the action was getting if the predicate will be the social vibe of your group. A threat was getting a social vibe? That's an unusual claim. On the other hand a threat was (or wasn't) some action fits.

These two reasons make the reader confirm that the two words was and getting are two separate verbs belonging to two separate clauses, and therefore, that the two negations act on each of them as (was not) (not getting), where there is the extra complication that in English a negation can be applied on a verb post-fixed (was not) and pre-fixed (not getting). In this case both encodings appearing simultaneously.

As I told you before -interesting sentence!

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