I have loved double negatives for as long as I can remember. It is a deep-seated love affair, and one of which I am proud.
I love hearing double negatives. I also love correcting them.
I find their use fascinating and perplexing.
I am a word and grammar geek, so this announcement should not come as a surprise. The cartoon shown here is one I’ve had in my planner for at least 15 years. Even after all this time, I look at it and I still chuckle.
I also correct double negatives when I hear them. Yes, I am that person. I will respond with the correct statement. If one of my students says, “I don’t know nothing about writing a business letter.” I will tell her, “Oh, so you DO know something about writing a business letter.” The look of confusion sticks around until we discuss the definition of a double negative. (She should have said, “I don’t know anything about writing a business letter.”)
A double negative occurs when two forms of negation appear in a clause (statement or sentence). You might combine a negative verb with a negative adverb or a negative pronoun or a negative conjunction. This ultimately turns the statement into the opposite meaning because the negatives may cancel out each other.
For example, scarcely and hardly are already negative adverbs. To add another negative term is redundant, because in English only one negative is ever used at a time
- So, instead of saying “They found scarcely no animals on the island” (meaning there were many animals), the writer meant to write “They found scarcely any animals on the island” (meaning there were only a few animals).
- Or, instead of saying “Hardly no one came to the party” (which means many people came to the party), one would write “Hardly anyone came to the party” (meaning there were only a few at the party).
A double negative may not always be an error, though. Take this for example: “She is not unattractive” meaning to say that “She IS attractive.” A speaker may have been using the double negative to drive home that point. Sometimes using the double negative is intentional, but it depends on the context.