Double negatives

Today, class, we are going to talk about “double negatives,” because how could I not not do it?

A “double negative,” according to Dictionary.com, is “a syntactic construction in which two negative words are used in the same clause to express a single negation.”

Let’s see if we can translate that into English.

A double negative is when you use two negative words in the same phrase, like this:

“I don’t know nothing.”

Technically, the two negatives should cancel each other out. If I do not know nothing, then I do know something.

But, just like two wrongs don’t make a right, sometimes two no’s don’t make a yes.

If I say, “I don’t know nothing,” what I am really saying is, “I know nothing — really.”

Or, if I’m being interrogated by a federal officer, what I am really saying is, “Of course I know something but I’m not going to tell you.”

We speak in double negatives all the time, and for the most part we understand each other perfectly well. But some grammarian a few hundred years ago decided that double negatives were not acceptable in proper English because someday somebody might get confused.

So in proper English, “I don’t know nothing” should instead be “I know nothing.”

Sgt. Schultz of “Hogan’s Heroes” had it right.

Now you know that you know nothing.

It’s easy to get twisted up in a double negative, like if I say,

“This sentence is not true.”

If that sentence is false, then it must be true, but if it’s true, then it must be false, and so on, and so on.

Below are some sentences containing double negatives. Let’s see if we can rewrite them into standard English.

1. We don’t need no stinking badges.

We need stinking badges!

2. I can’t get no satisfaction.

I can get satisfaction, because I’m Mick Jagger and I’m worth millions.

3. You ain’t seen nothing yet.

You have seen something yet, b-b-b-baby, and now this song is stuck in your head.

4. I can’t believe it’s not butter.

This tastes nothing like butter, are you kidding me?

5. I never was nor never will be.

Leave it to Shakespeare to come up with a triple negative.

6. We don’t need no education.

We need at least a little education in grammar.

Lisa Davis is Features Editor of The Anniston Star. Contact her at 256-235-3555 or ldavis@annistonstar.com.

Features Editor Lisa Davis: 256-235-3555.

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