Double Negatives

rogersgeorge on April 8th, 2017

I think I found another false English construction promulgated by stuffy English teachers. Certainly you were taught this in English class:

Don’t use two negatives in a sentence, because two negatives make a positive.

I illustrate with a joke that you have no doubt heard:

The English professor was in front of the classroom saying that whereas two negatives make a positive, two positives don’t make a negative. Someone in the back of the room said, “Yeah right.”

I guess linguistics doesn’t have a lot to say about sarcasm.

That aside, if I were to say

I don’t want to hear no more of your language jokes.

You’d actually know exactly what I mean, that I don’t want to hear the jokes. Logic and math notwithstanding, where two negatives do make a positive, we can argue that language came before either, so it has priority. In fact, in Classical Greek, using a double negative is considered grammatical, and doing so strengthens the negativity. The usual way of saying this was to use οὐ μη (pronounced oo may (the eta is supposed to have a grave accent, but I can’t make it do that here)). Both of these words translate as “not,” and the construction should be translated something like “definitely not!”

Am I advocating low-class English? Well, no. I said all that to say that I learned a new term, negative concordance, when two negatives make a stronger negative.

So there you have it. Understand it, but don’t do it.

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