In reference to "I can't get no satisfaction" vs "I can't get any satisfaction", Steven Pinker said (at 6:13):

But "can't" and "any" is just as much of a double-negative as "can't" and "no".

I understand his broader point about one dialect being chosen over another as "the correct one", due to where the political power was, but I don't understand why "can't get any" is a double-negative.

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    It isn't a double negative.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jan 9, 2021 at 13:46
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    "I don't have three bananas, I don't have two bananas, I don't have any bananas." All have a single negative. Commented Jan 9, 2021 at 13:54
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    @Mari-Lou A I think Pinker's being deliberately provocative here. He also misuses 'have sang' though probably he can find marginal justification somewhere; 'sang'/'sung' are variants for the past simple. Commented Jan 9, 2021 at 17:33
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    This question is based on the incorrect premise that the statement contains a double negative.
    – Jim
    Commented Jan 9, 2021 at 20:52
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    You’d be much better off asking this question on Linguistics Stack Exchange. People there would understand Pinker’s point much better. They’re likely to only be able to view this through the prism of Standard Englishes here. Commented Jan 9, 2021 at 21:17

5 Answers 5


I understand his broader point about one dialect being chosen over another as "the correct one", due to where the political power was, but I don't understand why "can't get any" is a double-negative.

If "I can't get any satisfaction" and "I can't get no satisfaction" mean the same thing, and the words "I", "can't", "get", and "satisfaction" mean the same thing in both sentences, then necessarily, the words "no" and "any" mean the same thing in that context.

Whether or not a word is a "negative" is a question about its meaning. It's a negative, in that context, if it means the absence of something and not the presence of something.

Thus if "no" is a negative in "I can't get no satisfaction", then "any" is a negative in "I can't get any satisfaction".

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    @Mitch Yes, it does. If the two words mean the same thing in that context, and whether a word is a negative or not depends on what it means, then either both are negatives or neither are. Commented Jan 11, 2021 at 4:47
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    Oh. That fact is where I disagree. I can replace one word with another but that doesn't mean they mean the some thing. 'The red chili' is different from 'the green chili'. Two different things. As to 'any', it does not mean absence. It is certainly used in the -context- of a negative - it doesn't work in the positive version '*I get any satisfaction' is wrong, but that doesn't make it a negative.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jan 11, 2021 at 13:27
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    There's also the supposition that 'lexeme' = 'orthographic word', which Crystal (and he introduced the term 'lexeme' and defined it) shows is demonstrably untrue. Or rather, more generally, that sound syntactical analysis can always break things down into orthographic words. 'Kick the bucket' in the metaphorical sense is a lexeme, synonym 'die'. Here, 'can't get no' = 'can't get any' = 'can't get'. Only the simplest form, stripped of complicating quantifier, is readily analysable. Commented Jan 11, 2021 at 14:53
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    @EdwinAshworth “I can’t say anything,” said the first speaker. “That’s fine, then I can say nothing, too,” added the second speaker. “You’re both mice. I can’t possibly say nothing!” exclaimed the third speaker in exasperation. “Same here: I just can’t not say anything. It wouldn’t be right,” said the fourth speaker, shaking his head in disbelief. What’s your call: are there any unacceptable negatives there? Feel free to decode via Horn’s rule that Lawler likes to cite. :)
    – tchrist
    Commented Jan 12, 2021 at 2:56
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    If 2+2 and 2² mean the same thing (4), and if ² is an exponent, then +2 must also be an exponent. Commented Jan 12, 2021 at 17:24

The word any, when used in a negation, is a Negative Polarity Item (NPI), which is defined by the paper Definite Descriptions and Negative Polarity as words that “seem happy under negation and are sometimes unhappy without negation”.

When you have a double negative, “standard” English dictates that you need to use a single negative but not both (or else you get litotes):

  • I can’t get satisfaction.
  • I can get no satisfaction.

In contrast, you don’t get a grammatical sentence with any:

  • I can get any satisfaction.

“I can get any satisfaction” would be grammatical as part of a longer sentence but note then how it doesn’t mean “no satisfaction”. Note also that there’s another sense of any (“free choice any”) with a completely different meaning that would be grammatical in similar sentences because it’s not a NPI (“I can get any TV” meaning that no TVs are out of your budget).

I decided to see how this compares with a dialect where double negatives emphasize the negative instead of canceling it.

I did a lemma-grouped search for VERB no in COCA to get a baseline for American English. I looked at a random sample of 100 for the phrase “[MAKE] no”. All the hits I saw were single negatives. The same was true for the same search in iWeb.

I searched CORAAL for AAVE examples using the regex \bma[kd][^.,|]* no\b which is a slightly broader search but ultimately trying to find similar examples. 13 or so hits were “double negatives”, such as “don’t make no sense”. There were about 5-6 examples with a single negative (such as “that makes no sense”). This shows that the single negative “no” is at least sometimes used among speakers of the dialect, though it’s impossible to know why from this alone. In searches for other verbs (such as one looking for “can ... no”), I haven’t been able to find any examples with the single negative “no” but I can’t tell if that’s because there’s not enough data or if it’s ungrammatical in the dialect.

There’s a paper that suggests that words like “no” are NPIs in AAVE but they don’t follow all the same rules as NPIs like “any” in “standard” English, though I didn’t have time to read it fully.

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    "In contrast, you don’t get a grammatical sentence with any: "I can get any satisfaction." A: "At law, you will obtain legal satisfaction; by denouncing him you may obtain moral satisfaction; by beating him to a pulp you may obtain physical satisfaction. but none of these are what you want. Give up!" B: *Rubbish, man! I can get any satisfaction."
    – Greybeard
    Commented Jan 9, 2021 at 19:16
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    @Greybeard That’s “free choice any”, which is the same as in “I can get any TV”. (Still, even in your example, it doesn’t sound very natural to me with ”satisfaction”.)
    – Laurel
    Commented Jan 9, 2021 at 20:21
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    This kind of misses Pinker’s point, I believe, which is that in those dialects in which ain’t ... no is grammatical, the no is not a negator (it isn’t a ‘negative’) it is just concord. Many NPIs such as any are basically also a type of concord. Commented Jan 9, 2021 at 20:25
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    @VladimirF You are misunderstanding Pinker’s claims. Let us continue this discussion in chat. Commented Jan 11, 2021 at 14:55
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    I don't get the argument about any NOT being the "free choice" any in "I can't get any satisfaction". Analogously, "I can get any TV" - "I can't get any TV".
    – Marandil
    Commented Jan 12, 2021 at 0:30

The problem is that "Double Negative" doesn't have any specific meaning. Like "Split Infinitive", it's a product of popular grammatical mythology, not logic.

First, there is a lot more negation around than one might have suspected.
As it says here,

... examples include syntactic constructions (This is it, isn’t it? Not any big ones, he didn’t), variation (so didn’t I; ain’t got none), morphology (-n’t, -free, un-), (morpho)phonology (do/don’t), intonations (‘Riiight’), and lexemes sporting negation overt (not, never, nix), incorporated (doubt, lack), calculated (few), entailed (prohibit), or presupposed (only).

And these interact together in all kinds of ways. It's not a case of two negatives yielding a positive; English is not algebra. Sometimes negatives do cancel, as in

  • That is not an unexpected result.

where the two negatives form a rhetorical phrase to say something like
You're right, but we already knew that.

Plenty of other negatives don't cancel out. For instance,

  • Not in here, you can't do that

does not give the addressee permission to do that in here.

And then there's the problem of multiple negations. One can get trapped by using a negative phrase without realizing it; one negative too many results in what Language Log calls a Misnegation, like

The government rushed to investigate the case thoroughly, eager to dispel any notion that it did not take lightly the killing of one of its citizens.

As far as NPIs being negative, think of them as all being locked in the negative field together. You wouldn't know that iron was magnetic but copper wasn't if you didn't know about magnetic fields. Plenty of languages just license any negatives inside a negative field, like Spanish No saben nada 'they don't know anything', literally "not know-3pl nothing". AAVE is like that, but whitebread English licenses NPIs instead.

So, I wouldn't worry about what Steven Pinker said. He said it in a different context, was talking about something else, and was probly just trying to break the news gently.

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    Fake negatives. Commented Jan 10, 2021 at 17:28
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    An interesting concept; could be a good epistemology paper. Commented Jan 10, 2021 at 17:32
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    Hardly black and white, Pinker. Commented Jan 10, 2021 at 17:56
  • @Phil Just a slip, not Freudian. // I'm avoiding any further temptations to pun. Commented Jan 10, 2021 at 17:57
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    Yeah, right. :-) Commented Jan 12, 2021 at 0:19


Steven Pinker does not say that “can’t get anyis a double negative, merely that it is no less of one than “can’t get no”. I think he is exaggerating, to make the point that grammatical rules are arbitrary rather than logical.

What Pinker actually says

The questioner writes

I don't understand why "can't get any" is a double-negative.

Steven Pinker does not claim that it is a double negative, only that

‘“can’t” and “any” is just as much of a double negative as “can’t” and “no”.’

What I think he means

I take him to mean that English works equally well whether the rule for totally negating “can get” is to say “can’t get no” or to say “can’t get any”, and he goes on to point out that it is a historical accident that “can’t … any” came to be preferred by those laying down the rules.

He is explaining the difference between descriptive and prescriptive rules, and says that

many of the prescriptive rules make no sense whatsoever

and uses the rules forbidding “split infinitives” and “double negatives” to illustrate this.

He is making the point that prescriptive grammar is more arbitrary and less logically compelling than people often suppose it to be, and that dialects which do not conform to it can be just as complex and expressive.

I do not, however, think it fair to say (as he does not explicitly) that the rule forbidding double negatives makes no sense whatsoever; in fact it codifies a convention which may be useful in some contexts.

We can define “double negative” so that the rule makes sense

What I think is confusing about Pinker’s claim is that “no” is in fact considerably more strongly associated with negation than “any” is. If we choose to therefore classify “can’t” and “no” as negative, but not “any”, and define a “double negative” as a construct using two words we classify as negative, then “can’t get no” is a double negative while “can’t get any” is not.

The rule does not forbid all double negatives and may be useful

Moreover, what the rule actually means is not to avoid a double negative, but to avoid using it to express simple negation: there are two negatives in “don’t say he’s not welcome”, “say not the struggle nought availeth”, “let nobody say you are not a sensualist” and perhaps even “thou shalt not bear false witness”, but all are acceptable. The point is that these are interpreted so that one negative negates part of the utterance containing another negative, while the negatives in “can’t get no” support one another.

If we want to construct complicated sentences, perhaps in a mathematical or philosophical context, in which we can negate arbitrary constructs, we need to agree when one negative negates a construct, and when two negatives belong together to form a simple negation. A simple rule to achieve this is to forbid the latter case – but this comes at the expense of classifying many common utterances as incorrect.


"Can't get any" is not a double negative because "any" is just the version of "some" in a negative context or question context (the so-called non assertive contexts). So, as you say "I don't have any chalk." when someone asks you "Do you have chalk?", and not "I don't have some chalk.", you also say "I can't get any satisfaction out of that hobby." when someone asks "Can you get any satisfaction out of that hobby?" (and you don't get any).

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    @EdwinAshworth "I've eventually found the actual relevant piece on the recording" ?! The link in the Q has a time stamp: 6m13s. Are you the one who downvoted and voted to close?
    – MWB
    Commented Jan 9, 2021 at 17:13
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    @DjangoReinhardt Because it doesn’t at all answer this question, and because it’s wrong (except in a very narrow context which is different from the implicit context of the question — and even in that context the answer doesn’t offer a good explanation, it’ just repeats a claim). Commented Jan 11, 2021 at 13:35
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    @KonradRudolph On the contrary, this answer is to the point, albeit treated lightly since references have not been used. This can be read in CGEL, p. 83 § 2.53: "Yes-No questions are also related to the negation through their association with a set of words which we may call NON-ASSERTIVE FORMS: any, anybody, anywhere, yet, etc.. These in turn contrast with corresponding ASSERTIVE FORMS (some, somebody, somewhere, already, etc.) which are associated with positive statements." 5 positive votes bear witness to the inappropriateness of your claim of total irrelevance.
    – LPH
    Commented Jan 11, 2021 at 14:09
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    @CGEL is a prescriptivist reference. Pinker is a linguist, and he does not accept the exclusivity of prescriptivist language definitions as valid. The context of the quote in the question, then, is intentionally descriptivist, to which your answer does not apply. Commented Jan 11, 2021 at 14:56
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    @KonradRudolph I don't think Pinker can logically support a theory of the negative import of "any" in today's English. This assertion of his about "any" being a negative word is for the time being a mere proposition. All that can be said is that it is specialized to negative contexts and questions (essentially). By the way, CGEL (Quirk et al.) is not particularly prescriptive in my opinion.
    – LPH
    Commented Jan 11, 2021 at 15:13

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