A double negative is a grammatical construction that is generally not considered unacceptable, though it is often spoken in colloquial, informal or nonstandard English or for dramatic effect. Double negatives should never be used in formal situations or in business situations. They are the sort of grammatical errors that many native English writers and speakers who use standard English find particularly grating. We will examine how to spot a double negative, how to avoid double negatives, and the few situations in which a double negative is acceptable.
A double negative is a sentence construction that involves the use of two words of negation in the same sentence. The idea is that the two negatives cancel each other out, producing a positive. This is a logic that was first put forth in the 1700s, when English grammarians were attempting to impose stricter rules on the use of the English language. It is based on the rules of mathematics and logical thought.
Double negatives may happen with the use of a negative contraction:
John won’t go nowhere on that bus.
(John will not go nowhere. If John will not go nowhere, then he will go somewhere.)
Amy can’t eat none of those peanuts.
(If Amy can not eat none of those peanuts, then Amy can eat some of those peanuts.)
I wasn’t having none of it.
(If I was not having none of it, then I was having some of it.)
Double negatives may involve the use of adverbs that are considered negative, such as scarcely, barely, hardly, seldom and rarely:
She couldn’t barely hear the minister’s sermon.
(If she could not barely hear the minister’s sermon, then she could hear the minister’s sermon.)
I couldn’t hardly understand his point.
(If I could not hardly understand his point, then I could understand his point.)
Double negatives may involve the use of prefixes:
The mother wasn’t irresponsible when she left her son in the car.
(If the mother was not irresponsible, then she was responsible.)
Wearing a seat belt is not unnecessary.
(If wearing a seat belt is not unnecessary, then wearing a seat belt is necessary.)
The choir’s singing is not inharmonious.
(If the choir’s singing is not inharmonious, then it is harmonious.)
The use of a double negative grammatical construction is sometimes intentional. Sometimes a double negative is used simply to produce a poetic effect. Sometimes a double negative is used to make a subtle point–using the negation of a negative statement to emphasize the affirmation of the positive of the statement. This is called a litotes:
You can’t just stand there and do nothing.
(If you can not do nothing, then you must do something. However, the use of the double negative conveys a sort of reluctance to get involved.)
I couldn’t not help the drowning man.
(If you could not not help the drowning man, then you had to help the drowning man. However, the use of the double negative conveys a hesitation to get involved.)
They are not unhappy.
(If they are not unhappy, then they are happy. However, the use of the double negative conveys a sense that the happiness is qualified or dampened.)
In most situations, the use of the double negative is inadvertent and should be avoided. Using a double negative correctly involves an understanding of nuance and subtlety in the English language. Watch your use of vocabulary words that are considered negative, including the adverbs scarcely, barely, hardly, seldom and rarely, as well as your negative prefixes and contractions.