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I saw this sentence and I was wondering if it was correct. I have a problem with the "can't". I would have rather said "there is nowhere we can go where we won't be recognized". To me, "can't" doesn't make sense since we have "nowhere".

Thanks in advance for your help.

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    Technically correct, if it means what you want it to mean. But very hard to parse on one reading. Most English profs would circle it with a big red pen. The only time I would use it is if I was writing a work of fiction and it came out of the mouth of a character who had a penchant for convoluted speech. Dec 21, 2021 at 23:02

9 Answers 9

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The sentence is overnegated. It's an amalgam of two negative ways of saying things, and as often happens, the speaker has included more negatives than they needed to.

One way is to say

  • There's nowhere we can't go.
    This means we can go anywhere.

Another way is to say

  • There's nowhere we won't be recognized.
    This means we will be recognized anywhere.

Put them together and you get a very confusing sentence.

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    Wouldn't the phrase in question be used more for the sake of emphasis? For instance "There's nothing we can't do!" instead of "We can do anything!"
    – lux
    Dec 20, 2021 at 17:26
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    That's the rhetorical reason why people use cancelling double negatives in English. But not all negatives cancel, and some people can't count. Dec 20, 2021 at 17:28
  • It seems that, using what we all understand to be "normal" English and sentence structure, the OP really means to say "there is nowhere we can go where we won't be recognized." There are some very unusual circumstances where (s)he might mean something else.
    – Jeffiekins
    Dec 23, 2021 at 5:01
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John Lawler is right, which means that the OP is right. "Can't" should be changed to "can". The sentence does have meaning, but it is not the intended meaning. The sentence as written:

There is nowhere we can't go where we won't be recognized.

What that means is that, of all the places we can't go (North Korea, perhaps), there is none where we won't be recognized. That is, all the places forbidden to us happen to be places where we will be recognized. Perfectly meaningful, but not plausible.

Edit: I also think this is someone who just lost count of how many negatives they were using, but did mean for two negatives to cancel each other. This is different from using them in such a way that they aren't meant to cancel each other, as people are doing when they say "You aren't going nowhere." Again I'm just following what John said, but I thought I had a little to add.

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It makes sense.

Approach the meaning of the statement (using can’t) by considering the set of places that may be defined.

A: places we can go

Not A: places we can’t go

B: places we will be recognised

Not B: places we will not be recognised

There are therefore only four distinct types of place: 1(A and B), 2(Not A and B), 3(A and not B), 4(not A and not B).

The statement is thus simple: There is no place 4.

Otherwise stated, there are only places of type 1,2,3: places we are recognised and can go, places we are recognised and cannot go, places we can go and are not recognised.

Hence, the statement has meaning.

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    Although the statement has a meaning ("There are places we can't go, for example Narnia or Andromeda, but if we did go to any of them we would be recognised."), I find it unlikely that this meaning was intended. Dec 20, 2021 at 8:02
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    @user3153372 You can always find some weird context. For example ... Person A: "Everybody knows that we like going against the rules and if we show up somewhere where we shouldn't be, somebody will immediately call the police. But I really want to go somewhere, anywhere, where we can't go". Person B: "But there is nowhere we can't go where we won't be recognized". Dec 20, 2021 at 8:48
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    Although one can parse the sentence to get a meaning from it, as written it really is an extremely unlikely thing for anyone to say. Change can't to can and it's the sort of thing people do say quite commonly and the meaning is immediately obvious. Without context I would assume it's a mistake as is.
    – nnnnnn
    Dec 21, 2021 at 10:19
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    It's purely a matter of opinion that someone made this bizarre construction intentionally and accurately. This answer is not more objective, just more ludicrous. Dec 21, 2021 at 19:05
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    I do not see Anton asserting anything at all about intention.
    – Yorik
    Dec 22, 2021 at 20:24
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"There is nowhere we can't go where we won't be recognized"

  • Let P = the set of all places
  • A = { pa ∈ P | we can go to pa } ... ~A is therefore the set of places we can't go.
  • B = { pb ∈ P | we will be recognized in pb } ... ~B is therefore the set of places we won't be recognized.

With the above definitions, the sentence says:

~A ∩ ~B = ∅

Put another way:

  • There is a subset of all places, that we can't go to.
  • Of that subset of places we can't go, there is a further subset where we won't be recognized.
  • That subset is empty ("nowhere").

Conceptually, it's not easy to consider several set operations in one sentence. Consider in increasing difficulty:

  • "We can go where we will be recognized" - Easy since it's a simple intersection set.
  • "We can go where we won't be recognized" - Reasonably easy since you're still identifying a single intersection set.
  • "There are some places we can go where we won't be recognized" - Slightly more difficult since you have to work backwards, thinking of where we won't be recognized, then think of whether we can go there or not.
  • "There is nowhere we can go where we won't be recognized" - More difficult as you have to think of where you won't be recognized, whether you can go there or not, and then how many of those places there are. In addition you're still working backwards which prevents your brain from trying to interpret the sentence while it's being parsed.

How does one rephrase this?

Humans deal fairly well with small countable sets, therefore we should try and identify the smallest useful set that is not empty. We have two negated subsets (~A and ~B) and we've already established that the intersection is empty. Discussion of sets in this way usually drills down so we can suppose that B is the smaller. Let's try negating that one, leaving ~A intact. We also now need to assert that the resulting subset is not empty.

"There are places we can't go where we will be recognized".

Better, however we can also use the fact that the negation is empty to indicate that the resulting set is equal to the former negated set:

"Everywhere we can't go we will be recognized."

We can then slightly rearrange this to:

"We will be recognized everywhere we can't go," and we have a sentence that is a little easier to parse than the original, while still conveying the same information.

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It depends on what you mean by "correct".

Grammar: any grammatical proposition can be negated to form another grammatical proposition.

Meaningfulness: any proposition that conveys meaning can be negated to form another proposition that conveys meaning, although the meaning of the new proposition is (usually) different to that of the original.

Sense: negating propositions tends to change the sense of the proposition. But to decide which sense is 'correct', you need to know the intent of the communication.

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    +1 for your last sentence. All too often we are given a sentence or other text and asked if it's correct or grammatical, when the important matter is what the writer meant, how to express their meaning, and (in particular) if the given text succeeds in doing that.
    – Rosie F
    Dec 21, 2021 at 7:00
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"Double negatives" are used in a variety of languages as an intensifier, rather than to cancel the previous negative.

For example

I didn't go nowhere today.

Would in that case mean "I really didn't go anywhere today".

One of the places you will find this is in dialects/variants of English:

Double negatives are usually associated with regional and ethnical dialects such as Southern American English, African American Vernacular English, and various British regional dialects. Indeed, they were used in Middle English. Historically, Chaucer made extensive use of double, triple, and even quadruple negatives in his Canterbury Tales. About the Friar, he writes "Ther nas no man no wher so vertuous" ("There never was no man nowhere so virtuous"). About the Knight, "He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde / In all his lyf unto no maner wight" ("He never yet no vileness didn't say / In all his life to no manner of man").

Source: Wikipedia >> Double negative >> Two or more negatives resolving to a negative

Wikipedia has a section on how to recognize whether the double negative is likely to intensify or cancel the previous negative, but their claim (look for a verb in between the two negatives) does not line up with my limited knowledge (which might be explained by a difference between the aforementioned british dialects and the american dialects that do this).

Anyway, the main point is: This could be a 'correct' sentence, but it's not correct standard English (in so far as such a thing exists).

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  • Suppose the OP is right, and the sentence with "can" expresses what the writer meant. Then how can the sentence with "can't" work, even in a dialect with "double negatives"? "Double negatives" doesn't mean that if there's at least one negative, other negatives can be added at will -- there are limits.
    – Rosie F
    Dec 21, 2021 at 6:54
  • @RosieF The way I would parse the sentence is "there is nowhere we can't go" which is followed by a qualifier. The first part to me sounds similar to constructions I have heard which used double negatives. But as I said in the answer "this could be 'correct'" (as in, intentionally written this way), not "this is correct". Dec 21, 2021 at 7:06
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I think you're right, Yoann, it doesn't make any sense to me.

However, many "double negatives" in practice mean the same as the corresponding single negative (eg in most contexts and without special emphasis, all native speakers will understand "I didn''t see nobody" to mean the same as "I didn't see anybody").

So in the same way, it is possible that people are saying sentences like your example with the meaning of your amended sentence. I haven't heard it, but it may be happening.

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You know, language isn't all about correctness, it's also a matter of style. Many places, for instance in the US, people often use a form like "I didn't see noone", meaning they saw nobody. The formal meaning is of course that they saw somebody.

So whilst technically correct, the sentence is very confusing, and the formal meaning appears to be quite different from the intended message.

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It's technically correct and grammatical, but ambiguous and quite confusing.

The sentence can be parsed in one of two main ways:1

  • "there is nowhere we can't go where we won't be recognized" --> "of all the places we can't go, there is nowhere where we won't be recognized" --> "all the places we can't go are places where we'll be recognized"
  • "there is nowhere we can't go where we won't be recognized" --> "every place we can go is a place where we won't be recognized" --> "wherever we can go, we won't be recognized"

(These two meanings are closely related, but differ subtly as to whether or not they exclude the possibility of there existing places we can go where we'll be recognized, or, instead, of there existing places we can't go where we won't be recognized.)

Even to a native speaker, the sentence takes a while and at least a couple rereadings to wrap one's head around, so I would recommend not using it unless you (or your character) want to confuse someone.


1: If we ignore the potential dual meaning of "can't"; otherwise, two ways becomes four ways (with each of the original two splitting into a "'can't go' = 'are not allowed to go'" / "'can't go' = 'are literally incapable of going'" pair).

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