I found myself saying the following sentence the other day:

I always fasten my seat belt because my car won't let me not — it starts beeping loudly.

If I were to use allow instead of let, I would say:

I always fasten my seat belt because my car won't allow me not to — it starts beeping loudly.

The latter sentence sounds natural to me because of the additional to that makes it clear what not refers to. Since let takes the bare infinitive, I suppose that using to in the first sentence would be incorrect:

I always fasten my seat belt because my car won't let me not to — it starts beeping loudly.

Wouldn't it?

What would you say about my first sentence? The words "won't let me not" sound strange to my ear. Is it grammatical? Is it clumsy? Is it perfectly natural? What is the general rule of using let + negative verb with the actual verb omitted?

  • I always fasten my seat belt because my car won't let me do otherwise—it starts beeping loudly.
    – zpletan
    Mar 28 '12 at 14:37
  • @zpletan: Yeah, well, I suppose there are many "workarounds", as it were, but I am really interested in the grammatical aspect here - see the last sentence of my question. Mar 28 '12 at 14:39
  • I agree with @JSBangs, but I want to point out that part of "correct" is also wither you prefer a prescriptive or descriptive grammar. Although in this case the first type allows it, the second type is more liberal and would because there are numerous examples of such use by native speakers or "it just sounds right" to one.
    – user14070
    Mar 28 '12 at 16:03

What you're saying is perfectly grammatically correct, and in my opinion it's completely natural. All you've committed is ellipsis of the phrase fasten my seatbelt:

I always fasten my seat belt because my car won't let me not fasten my seatbelt.

This is different from the case with allow, because the verb to let takes as its complement a bare verb, without the infinitive marker to.

I'll let you leave. (wrong: *I'll let you to leave.)

The nurse won't let you not take your medicine. (wrong: *The nurse won't let you not to take your medicine.)

So when using ellipsis with the verb let, it's correct to leave off the infinitive marker to, and to place the negative not at the end if required.

  • 3
    @zpletan How would that be a double negative? Yes, there are two negatives, but they have different and non-overlapping scopes. Mar 28 '12 at 14:50
  • 1
    @zpletan, okay, so it is a double-negative in that sense, but it's a deliberate double-negative whose composite meaning is clear. Mar 28 '12 at 15:11
  • 3
    Tangent: This is why I dislike those statements about a double negative being the same as a positive. Sure, in arithmetic, -(-2)=2. But there is a big difference between "You are allowed to faster your seatbelt" and "You are not allowed to not fasten your seatbelt". The first says you MAY, the second says you MUST. The NOTs don't simply cancel each other out.
    – Jay
    Mar 28 '12 at 15:39
  • 1
    @Jay, on the other hand, "You are not allowed to not fasten your seatbelt," is the same as the positive, "You must fasten your seatbelt." A double negative does make a positive statement, it's just that different wording is often (always?) required.
    – zpletan
    Mar 28 '12 at 15:44
  • 2
    Noncompositional double negatives, like He ain't got no money, are more the stuff that excite peevers. Many if not most languages allow negative concord like this (Je ne regrette rien, No tiene nada), whereas English professes not to, at least not where anybody can see it in writing. Mar 28 '12 at 15:58

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