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Double negative

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

For double negatives in formal logic, see Double negative elimination.

A double negative occurs when two forms of negation are used in the same sentence. In some languages a double negative resolves to a negative, while in others it resolves to a positive. These are strictly rhetorical rules and have nothing to do with mathematics. Double negatives are used in some languages and considered erroneous in others. Sometimes, triple and quadruple negation can also be seen, which leads to an alternative term for the same phenomenon called negative concord. In literature, denying a negation is known as the trope of litotes.

A famous linguist once made the further observation that it was unknown for a double positive ever to resolve to a negative. A skeptical voice came from the back of the lecture hall: "Yeah, yeah."[1]

This joke is attributed to late Prof. Sidney Morgenbesser of Columbia University. In Bulgarian the expression "Да-да" ("Yes-yes") is used to show disagreement with what has been said. The Portuguese expression Pois sim! (so yes!) has a similar meaning. Also the Spanish sí, sí... or the English, "Yeah, yeah, yeah..." to express dismissal.


In today's standard English, double negatives are not used; for example the standard English equivalent of "I don't want nothing!" is "I don't want anything". It should, however, be noted that in standard English one cannot say "I don't want nothing!" to express the meaning "I want something!" unless there is very heavy stress on the "don't" or a specific plaintive stress on the "nothing".

Although they are not used in standard English, double negatives are used in various American English dialects, including African American Vernacular English, and the East London Cockney and East Anglian dialects and less frequently, but still commonly, in colloquial English. In the film Mary Poppins, Dick Van Dyke uses a double negative when he says

If you don't want to go nowhere.

Double negative is also famously used in the first two lines of the song "Another Brick in the Wall (part II)" included in the album The Wall by Pink Floyd, sung by schoolchildren

We don't need no education.
We don't need no thought control.

Other examples of double negatives include:

I ain't got nobody.


Don't nobody go to the store.


I can't hardly wait.

or the Faithless song "Insomnia"

I can't get no sleep.

or the "stinking badges" from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Badges? [pause] We ain't got no badges.[2]

Double negative also refers to even more than two negatives, like:

And don't nobody buy nothing.

It is common amongst children whenever mischief has occurred for them to say,

I didn't do nothing[citation needed]

Today, the double negative is often considered the mark of an uneducated speaker, but it used to be quite common in English, even in literature. Chaucer made extensive use of double negatives in his poetry, sometimes even using triple negatives. For example, he described the Friar in the Canterbury Tales: "Ther nas no man no wher so vertuous" (i.e. "there wasn't no man nowhere so virtuous"), and he even used a fourfold negative when describing the Knight: "He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde / In all his lyf unto no maner wight." Chaucer used these multiple negatives for emphasis and for metrical purposes.

Two negatives don't always make double negative

Sometimes, sentences such as "I don't disagree" or "Mr. Jones was not incompetent" are thought to contain double negatives. The idea is that the not and the dis/un are both negative and therefore "cancel each other out". This is an error. In the first place, language is not mathematics and even the classic double negative is not an error because of any mathematical metaphor. The sentence "I don't disagree" uses a rhetorical device much like the intentional contradiction of a true oxymoron. The speaker who doesn't disagree means to say something like "There is no mistake in what you say, but there is more to it than that." If Mr. Jones is described as "not incompetent", it is unlikely that anyone would take him to be competent.

Triple and quadruple negatives

Bert Williams' early twentieth century hit song Nobody (rerecorded by Johnny Cash) contains the notable chorus:

Well, I ain't never done nothing to nobody.
I ain't never got nothing from nobody, no time.
And, until I get something from somebody sometime,
I don't intend to do nothing for nobody, no time.[3]

This is an example of triple and quadruple negatives, used for emphasis. Another example:

I am not never going to do nowt no more for thee.

Germanic languages

Double negation is not found in the standard West Germanic languages except for Afrikaans where it is mandatory. For example: Hy kan nie Afrikaans praat nie. (literally 'he cannot Afrikaans speak not'). Both French and San origins have been suggested for double negation in Afrikaans. While double negation is still found in Low Franconian dialects in West-Flanders and in some 'isolated' villages in the center of the Netherlands (i.e. Garderen), it takes a different form, which is not found in Afrikaans (ie. ikne wil dat nie doen - I not will that not do). In Flemish dialectical speech though there are still some widely used expressions like nooit niet (literally: 'never not' : used instead of just nooit 'never'). The -ne was the Old Franconian way to negate, but it is suggested that since it became highly non-voiced 'nie' or 'niet' was needed to complement the -ne. With time the -ne disappeared in most Low Franconian ("Dutch") dialects. Non-standard varieties of Germannic languages all use them. Here are two German language examples:

Das macht kein Mensch nicht. (literally: "That makes no man not.") Example of an archaic form that resolves to a negative but is no longer understood as: "No man does that."

Ich kenne nicht niemanden. (literally: "I know not nobody.") Modern usage, easily understood as: "It is not true that I don't know anybody."

The double negative construction has been fully grammaticalized in standard Afrikaans (due to its use in many indigenous languages in that area) and its proper use follows a set of fairly complex rules as the examples below (provided by Bruce Donaldson) show:

Ek het nie geweet dat hy sou kom nie = Eng. I didn't know that he would be coming.

Ek het geweet dat hy nie sou kom nie = Eng. I knew that he wouldn't be coming.

Ek het nie geweet dat hy nie sou kom nie = Eng. I didn't know that he wouldn't be coming.

Hy sal nie kom nie, want hy is siek = Eng. He won't be coming because he is sick.

Dis (=Dit is) nie so moeilik om Afrikaans te leer nie = Eng. It's not so difficult to learn Afrikaans.

Romance languages

Double negatives are standard in Romance languages. Negation is generally expressed by adding a word (ne in French, no in Spanish and Catalan, non in Italian, não in Portuguese, nu in Romanian) to the verb and zero or more words elsewhere to indicate what part of the sentence is negated. In French, unlike the others, simple negation usually requires the word pas:

French Je ne mange pas.
Catalan No menjo or no menjo pas.
Spanish No como.
Portuguese Não como.
Italian Non mangio.
Romanian Nu mănânc.

Pas (from Latin passus) was originally the word for "step" used for emphasis, e.g., Fr. je ne marche pas and Cat. no camino pas originally meant I don't go a step). The usage of the word later extended to serve as a negative particle, to the point that ne is now often left out in colloquial speaking and pas serves as the only negating element. In Catalan, however, pas is only used in some dialects to mark that a negative sentence contradicts what was expected. Conversely, in standard Occitan, pas is the only particle used to negate sentences and non is only used as an answer to questions.

The correlative negative words in Spanish and Italian are used only in negative sentences (e.g. ningún - a positive sentence uses algún) whereas some French, Catalan and Occitan negative words are the same as positive words. This sometimes leads to confusion for non-native speakers if the verb, and therefore the word ne, is omitted. For example, in French "personne" can mean both "person" and "nobody" (but are spelled differently), "plus" can mean both "more" and "no more", and in Catalan "res" can mean both "anything" or "something", "enlloc" can mean both "somewhere" and "nowhere", and so on (however, in Catalan such positive uses are most frequently found on interrogative or conditional sentences and are rare in affirmative statements.)

This is compounded by the fact that colloquial French has a strong tendency to drop the "ne" particle, keeping only the second part.

In recent years, incorrect double negatives have become increasingly common in a form very similar to English: J'ai pas rien vu ("I didn't see nothing"), whereas the correct form is Je n'ai rien vu or J'ai rien vu.

In Romanian, double negation is standard, just like in the surrounding Slavic languages. For instance, "nu deranjez pe nimeni niciodatã" literally means "I don't disturb nobody never" but is the same as saying in English "I never disturb anybody." Also, in Catalan some double negations are found. Since there are many Catalan negative particles which are in fact no plus an affirmative particle, there is a tendency to add no to particles which can't be affirmative in any context, for example Jo tampoc no l'he vista (literally "I neither not her have seen.") Those double negations are, however, correct, and in fact are encouraged by most teachers, despite the fact that some grammars consider both constructions as valid ones and that the usage of this kind of double negation is decreasing, perhaps due to Spanish influence or perhaps due to the birth of a new natural tendency to drop particles similar to the one found in French.

Slavic languages

In many Slavic languages, including Russian and Serbian, a double negative is correct grammar, while a single negative is an error in grammar. The following are literal translations of grammatically correct Serbian sentences: Niko nikada nigde ništa nije uradio - Nobody never nowhere nothing did not do (nobody ever did anything anywhere), Ovo nije izazvano ničim - This is not caused by nothing (not caused by anything).

In Slovenian, much like in many other Slavic languages, double negation is a correct form, though sometimes causing confusion as to whether the positive or the negative is meant by a given (ambiguous) sentence. For example, the English sentence 'I don't know anyone' would be translated to Ne poznam nikogar (I don't know nobody); a literal translation, Ne poznam kogarkoli, is a somewhat strange construction, but means 'I don't know just anyone' (i.e. I know someone important or special). Peculiarly, 'Nobody knows one another' becomes 'Nihče ne pozna nikogar' (No one doesn't know no one).

However, the Church Slavonic language allows only single negation (still, many norms of Church Slavonic are artificial, as it is not a spoken language).

Example of commonly used triple negative in Czech: Nikdo nic nevyhrál meaning Nobody won anything, translated literally as Nobody didn't win nothing.

In Russian the following sentence with 6 negations is grammatically correct: Неужели никто нигде никогда не видел ничего подобного?, meaning Is it possible that no one has ever seen anything like that anywhere?

In Polish, the double negative is used in any case that pronouns are used with a negative construction and is considered grammatically correct. For example, Nie znam nikogo, means literally I do not know nobody, but means that the speaker does not know anybody. Another example, Nic nie mam, means literally 'I do not have nothing,' but means that the speaker does not have anything.

Ancient Greek

Double negatives are perfectly correct in Ancient Greek and Modern Greek, sometimes expressing an affirmation, sometimes strengthening the negation. With few exceptions, a simple negative (οὐ or μή) following another simple or compound negative (e.g., οὐδείς, no one) results in an affirmation, whereas a compound negative following a simple or compound negative strengthens the negation.

  • οὐδείς οὐκ ἔπασχε τι, no one was not suffering something, i.e., everyone was suffering.
  • μὴ θορυβήσῃ μηδείς, let no one raise an uproar, lit. do not let no one raise an uproar.

The above applies only when the negatives all refer to the same word or expression in a clause, so in

οὐ διὰ τὸ μὴ ἀκοντίζειν οὐκ ἔβαλον αὐτόν, it was not on account of their not throwing that they did not hit him,

all the negatives operate independently of each other.


Double or multiple negative is grammatically required in Hungarian with negative pronouns, e.g. Nincs semmim (lit. "I don't have nothing"), Soha nem iszom (lit. "I never don't drink"), Ne mondd el senkinek (lit. "Don't tell no one about it"), or a quintuple case: Soha sehol ne mondj el semmit senkinek, literally "Never nowhere don't tell no one about nothing", meaning Don't ever, anywhere tell anyone about anything.

See also

  • Double negative elimination
  • Negation
  • Redundancy (language)


  1. ^ NPR broadcast on August 2, 2004
  2. ^ John Huston 1948 ,The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
  3. ^ Bert Williams 1906, Nobody
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