I almost touched on this the other day when I was talking about a kinder, gentler form of writing, and then realized that it was perfect for today’s Mangled Monday.
Double-Negatives make a positive.
(Raise your hand if you learned this in 7th grade math class.)
Let’s do the grammatical math.
I do not want to go to the zoo.
(-1) This has one negative, making the sentence negative.
I’m not ever going to hit my kids.
(-1) This one also has just one negative, so the kids are safe.
I ain’t never going to hit my kids.
(-2) Oops. “Ain’t” is a negative (am not), and “never” is a negative and together, they make this a positive statement. Because, see, if you “not never” do anything, then you’re actually doing it–because the opposite of “never” is “sometime.”
I didn’t do nothing!
(-2) Again–two negatives. If you’re not doing “nothing,” you’re doing “something.”
I can’t get no satisfaction.
(-2) This one sounds familiar… If you’re not completely UNsatisfied, that means that you’re satisfied at least some of the time.
The thing about those last couple of examples, though? Double-negatives or not, they still make their emphasis pretty clear. Because in common usage, of course, you can add in negatives for emphasis–especially in dialogue. “No, I didn’t never, never, never, no how, no way kill anybody!” Nobody’s going to sit there on the jury counting the negatives and think, “Hmm, 6 negatives, that must mean that he’s guilty.” The gist of the sentence is obvious.
And, what about this sentence?
No, I do not want any more meat loaf.
Technically, there are two negatives in the sentence, but since they are parts of different clauses, they don’t “interact.” That first “no” is essentially a sentence all on its own.
Then, there’s the Litote–a rhetorical device which makes a positive statement by using two negatives. “She’s not exactly ugly,” can be said about, say, the supermodel of your choice, if you’re shooting for dry understatement. Or, a job reference that reads, “Mr. Smith was not a bad employee.” They’re not exactly singing the poor fellow’s praises, are they, but they didn’t actually say anything bad about him either. It’s that whole, damning-with-faint-praise thing.
This ties in with the post I wrote about the advantages of weak writing. Because while it’s frowned upon by writing experts, there’s a lot to be said for a little understatement, a little shading to your writing.
Because, nothing is simple black and white–not even something as obvious as the double-negative rule.
What do you think?