Is to say that something is "never indistinguishable" poor grammar? We rarely, if ever, see such phraseology in English, but my understanding is that it is grammatically valid, even if it would be regarded as "poor grammar"? After all, one could simply say that something is "always distinguishable", which carries the same meaning and sounds much more linguistically valid in the English language. As to why it is poor grammar, it seems to me that this might fall under the category of a double negative? So it would be valid, albeit, considered poor, grammar?

I would appreciate it if people would please take the time to clarify this.

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    It doesn't seem like a full on double negative (like 'Can't not do better'). Consider the phrase 'He is not undefeated'. This does not equate to 'He is defeated' - He could have won 5 fights, then lost 1, then won the next 5.
    – Smock
    Commented Jan 10, 2020 at 11:32
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    @Smock I agree. Although it sounded similar to a double negative, it didn't seem like it actually was -- hence why I asked the question. Commented Jan 10, 2020 at 11:36
  • @Smock Hmm, yes, you make a good point. Saying that something is "not insignificant" is actually quite common (and, I think, totally fine grammar), and this is grammatically analogous to saying that something is "never indistinguishable", so I guess it's just a matter of frequency of usage and how pleasant it "sounds", rather than a matter of grammatical validity? Commented Jan 10, 2020 at 11:38
  • I think the double negatives using prefixes (from your link) are far more acceptable (in my opinion) that the I didn't steal nothing examples - those are usually invalid - it should mean I did steal something but is used in speech to mean I didn't steal anything
    – Smock
    Commented Jan 10, 2020 at 11:39
  • @Smock It's a shame you deleted that comment, because it actually made a really good point with "not insignificant", haha. Commented Jan 10, 2020 at 11:40

1 Answer 1


Far from the poorly structured and carelessly uttered double negatives, double negative adjectives or adverbs like the one you have mentioned are perfectly fine and often used by eloquent speakers and writers of refined taste.

Consider the following:

She was not unattractive.

Would you say the meaning is the same as below?

She was attractive.

I wouldn't! :D

I don't think "never indistinguishable" and "not indistinguishable" are equal either. I perceive "not indistinguishable" to be somewhere between "distinguishable" and "indistinguishable."

Saying that something has been "never indistinguishable" sounds like many have believed the subject to be "indistinguishable" while it's being said now that it's at least not totally indistinguishable.

More on the subject:

A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, Section 10.66, p. 791. Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech, and Svartvik. Longman, 1985.

Credits to @cacambo for providing a link to the rhetoric device:


  • Yes, similar to our discussion of "not insignificant" in the comments. As I said, this is a commonly used phrase that seems like a good use of English, and it is grammatically analogous to "never indistinguishable", so it must just be a matter of frequency of usage, rather than grammar. Commented Jan 10, 2020 at 11:43
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    This argument works well for the pairs of words such as attractive-unattractive, which stand for the opposite ends of a scale that also has a middle part. It is not obvious, however, that distinguishable-indistinguishable is such a pair of terms. Two things either can be distinguished or they can't; if they can't, they are indistinguishable. It is not clear what could be between these two possibilities. (It is true that sometimes things can be distinguished only with a great deal of effort, but such things are still distinguishable.)
    – jsw29
    Commented Jan 11, 2020 at 0:02
  • @jsw29 "distinguish" means "to see a difference." It's subjective, hence gradable.
    – Apollonian
    Commented Jan 11, 2020 at 6:45

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