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Are Double Negatives Wrong in English Grammar?

Are Double Negatives Wrong in English Grammar?

In today's blog post, we’ll explain a controversial topic of English grammar: the "double negative" or "double negation." Here's what we'll cover:

  1. What is the double negative?
  2. The case against the double negative
  3. The case for the double negative
  4. What we think

What’s the double negative?

In English, people usually negate a statement with one negative word. This is called "single negation."

  • I did not steal anything.
  • I stole nothing.

Double negation is when two negative words are used to make a negative statement.

  • I did not steal nothing. [= I did not steal anything.]
  • He does not know nobody here. [= He does not know anybody here.]

A classic example is the Rolling Stones song "I Can't Get No Satisfaction," which means "I can't get any satisfaction."

So does English actually have two ways to make a negative statement: single and double negation? Or is one correct and the other incorrect? This depends on who you ask!

The case against double negation

Most English textbooks, teachers, and educated native speakers will say that you can only make a negative statement with single negation.

In their opinion, double negation doesn't make sense. It's like in math: When you multiply two negative numbers, you get a positive number, not another negative one. So people who use double negation are actually making positive statements!

  • "I didn't steal nothing" actually means "I stole something."
  • "He doesn't know nobody" means "He knows somebody."

The case for double negation

However, if you read more into this topic, you'll find some support for the double negative. Supporters say that the double negative does make sense. For example, no native English speaker would hear "I didn't steal nothing" and think it meant "I did steal something." So the double negative makes sense.

Supporters will also point out that double negation has a long history in English grammar. Many cases of it have been found in Old English and famous writers in the past used double and even triple negatives.

Nowher so bisy a man as he ther nas,
[= Nowhere so busy a man as he there never was,]

- Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales

I never was, nor never will be.

- Shakespeare in Richard III

According to supporters, the reason the double negative became incorrect grammar is because of English grammar guides from the 18th century.

Lindley Murray's English Grammar was especially influential. It went through many editions in the US, UK, and around the world, and was respected by famous writers such as Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Dickens. Here's what it said about the double negative:

Two negatives, in English, destroy one another

Supporters believe that it was because of grammar guides like this that double negation became seen as bad grammar.

What we think

Both supporters and critics of the double negative have a point.

  • We agree with supporters when they say that there's nothing wrong with the double negative itself. English has many dialects, and each dialect is different grammatically. So in some dialects double negation is actually considered correct.
  • However, critics are right in that the double negative is no longer correct in more widely-spoken dialects of English, like the kinds you learn in English class. That's why you won't see it in news reports, legal documents, or academic papers, and why many pop stars who sing with double negation will use single negation in interviews.

Another thing people don't seem to know is that the double negative was already uncommon by the 16th century due to natural changes in the language that started centuries before grammar guides came out.

So our advice to English learners is to stick to standard single negation, but keep in mind that some English speakers still use the double negative today.

For more help with English grammar, check out our free Grammar lessons and book a lesson with one of our professional English tutors. Our tutors are available 24/7 and prepared to help you with all things English-related! Learn more about us here.