I'm aware that a double negative like in

I didn't do nothing that day.

to emphasize that you really didn't do anything that day is not standard English. Yet, I thought it's quite commonly used, but that may differ regionally. Today, I used such a double negative combined with "neither". Similar to:

Kid: Mom, can I have a cookie?
Kid: Or can I have a piece of cake?
Mom: You can't have neither.

My colleague who is a native speaker (I am not) said that Mom's statement is completely wrong.

Now, my actual question is: is there something about "neither" which makes it less acceptable in a double negation, compared to the first statement I provided? Even though I wouldn't use neither nor in a negated sentence, Mom's statement seems pretty clear to me. Knowing that a formally correct reply would be: "You can have neither." or "You can't have either" - as pointed out in the comments.

In addition to the original question:

This made me head scratch some more. If mom were to respond to the kid's request:

No, you can't. Neither cake nor cookie.

That would also be correct in standard English, right? But putting this together into one sentence would then become:

No, you can't have neither cake nor cookie.

would it not? Is this a valid sentence in standard English?

  • 1
    Does your colleague also think that "you don't get nothing" is completely wrong? As you've noted, it's non-standard. It might be the case that some English dialect permits "you can't have neither." But generally, I would suggest that if you haven't heard a native English speaker using a non-standard sentence, don't use it yourself.
    – Juhasz
    Nov 4, 2019 at 21:43
  • 2
    While `You can have neither" is formally correct, it would be more idiomatic to say "You can't have either".
    – Barmar
    Nov 4, 2019 at 22:49
  • Negative Concord is using a negative trigger for emphasis, instead of a Negative Polarity Item, like I didn't do nothing instead of I didn't do anything. It's not so much a regional feature as a socioeconomic one. Nov 4, 2019 at 22:51
  • I've hear this used by Jamaican or African Londoners, but I think it is a dialect-thing rather than any formal grammatical construct. Similarly, "I've not dun nuffink" would be more of an un-educated, white working-class, East London native english speaker's thing.
    – NeilB
    Nov 4, 2019 at 23:06
  • Well, you learneded me real good.
    – John Canon
    Nov 5, 2019 at 2:46

1 Answer 1


"didn't do nothing"

is especially meaningful, because if there is no anything, that's as good as nothing. Observe that the opposite, anything, can mean either something or everything, because there is no unambiguous inverse of nothing, which would be like division by zero. It's also notable that only because of the auxilary "do" is there any space for double negation.

"cannot have neither"

With either or the situation is quite different, but the negative concord is backed right into neither nor. Why would that not transfer over? In fact, when either means specificillay "one of both", then "can't have either" leaves room for "both at once", rarely, if at all, but theoretically. As such, negative concord just marks the negativity, not the negation, because the negation of "either ... or" is "all or nothing", which is non-existant in usage. No other source for misunderstanding is imaginable. If either correctly marks a limit, "one at most", then "neither" also marks a limit, "zero", and as is known, zero negative is just zero.

  • I'm not sure if I understand correctly. Are you saying that "You can't have neither" is a correct sentence in standard English? Nov 5, 2019 at 19:32
  • No I'm not saying that. I'm saying it's easy enough to understand, when the interpretation "well, you must have something or you will starve" is pretty much excluded from context; although, the ambiguity might be the joke. Anyhow, formal standard English is plainly not relevant in a familiar setting.
    – vectory
    Nov 8, 2019 at 13:16

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