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What does “I Can't Get No Satisfaction” mean?

I'd like to know the difference between these sentences:

I can't get any sleep.
I can get no sleep.
I can't get no sleep.

  • 4
    The last one sounds like a cowboy. – LarsTech Dec 29 '11 at 16:51
  • 1) clear, comprehensible, standard; 2) grammatical but somewhat stilted; 3) grammatical from a descriptivist standpoint I guess, but your English teacher won't approve. – Tao Dec 29 '11 at 17:03

1) I can't get any sleep

2) I can get no sleep

3) I can't get no sleep

(1) and (3) mean exactly the same thing; (1) is standard, while (3) is used only in dialects of English that have negative concord, a linguistic property in which adding a second negative to a sentence serves as an intensifier (rather than cancelling the first negative and turning the meaning positive, as occurs in standard American and British English). (3) is essentially never used in writing, or anywhere outside specific speech communities - many English speakers consider this form to sound "wrong" or "uneducated", so it's best to use (1) instead.

(2) is a grammatical sentence in standard English, but sounds strange and would be rarely used. It also has two possible meanings (it is ambiguous), depending on context. It could mean the same thing as (1); if this is your intent, use (1), as it sounds much more natural. However, it could be that in contrast to (1) which asserts the speaker's inability to sleep, (2) asserts the speaker's ability to not sleep. Consider the following hypothetical conversation:

Person A: I can't pull an all-nighter, I'll be dead in the morning. I need at least a few hours of sleep to function.

Person B: I don't know what you're talking about. I can get no sleep and feel just fine.

In this case (2) means something definitely distinct from (1); Person B is saying she is able to go without sleep, not that she is unable to sleep. However, note that some context such as the above is necessary for this reading to make sense; "I can get no sleep" in isolation is hard to interpret this way, and just sounds odd.

  • 2
    Negative Concord is normal in many languages, like French, Spanish, or Yiddish; in most dialects, English uses Negative Polarity instead. Any is the prototypical Negative Polarity Item. – John Lawler Dec 29 '11 at 17:43
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    Following what you've written, (3) is not only a negative concord but could also assert the speaker's inability to not sleep (the speaker requires sleep to function). – DMc Dec 29 '11 at 18:25
  • @user1807 - good point! However, I feel as though (3) is even less likely to be used in that sense than (2) is, or at least would require very specific intonation - "I CAN'T get no sleep" or "I can't get NO sleep" - because it's so easily confused with the negative concord reading. – alcas Dec 29 '11 at 18:31
  • A nitpick on an otherwise excellent answer: it is not true that (3) has positive meaning in standard English, though this is often claimed as justification for stigmatising (1). Aside from some highly marked constructions (with particular context or tone of voice) it occurs only as an error in standard English; but when the error occurs it is not taken as a positive (except perversely, to make a point), but understood as an error for (1). Therefore, insofar as it has meaning in standard English, it means the same as (1). – Colin Fine Dec 30 '11 at 22:07
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    Double negatives are common in standard English to mean the negative. For example, "I didn't eat any fries today." This is standard English and means the same thing as "I ate no fries today.", the single negative.) Both "didn't" and "any" are negatives. The issue is just which negative is used, "any" or "no", not whether a negative will be used. (If you claim "any" is not a negative in this use, then please tell me what it is that it refers to. It's a negative too, the proof is that it means precisely the same thing as the non-standard "no".) – David Schwartz Jan 1 '12 at 17:01

The first two are grammatical in Standard English. The second is much less likely to be found than the first, which is itself less likely than I can’t get to sleep. The third shows double negation, a feature that was for centuries a normal part of the language, but which is grammatical now only in non-standard varieties of English.

  • The song I can't get no satisfaction wouldn't be as good if it was grammatically correct. :-) – LarsTech Dec 29 '11 at 18:15
  • @LarsTech: It is grammatically correct, but not in Standard English. – Barrie England Dec 29 '11 at 18:38
  • Ah but @BarrieEngland, could it not be considered Standard English, if you take it to mean "I cannot fail to get satisfaction"? – JeffSahol Dec 29 '11 at 19:14
  • @JeffSahol: It could, but that is clearly not the intended meaning, given the context. – Barrie England Dec 29 '11 at 19:45

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