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.

Subscribe to this blog's RSS feed

Time for Another Comic about Grammar

rogersgeorge on August 27th, 2016

Your grammar reveals social status—which side of the tracks you are from. Demonstrated by this Rubes comic, sort of.


Beware those double negatives! Though only the grammar police would try to interpret this as a positive. I might add that in classical Greek, a double negative was interpreted as a strong negative.

By the way, English has one double positive that means a negative. The expression “yeah, right.”

Getting negatives right

rogersgeorge on December 20th, 2013

An English professor once remarked that it was mildly interesting that two negatives make a positive in English, but two positives never make a negative. A voice from the back of the room came out with “Yeah, right.” So if you include sarcasm, you can do it. I’ll add an interesting linguistic fact: In Greek, two negatives make the negative stronger.  It’s as if to say “definitely not!”

I like the comic Candorville, by Darren Bell, partly because the main character, Lemont, is not only a writer, but also  is somewhat of a grammar curmudgeon, rather like me in both cases. Here’s a lesson, from  September 22, 2012 in getting a negative right.


And don’t get me started on “I could care less.”

P.S. This comic appeared just after I finished this post.