Tuesday October 30, 2012
About double negatives
By FADZILAH AMIN
‘Ain’t No Other Man’ has a negative meaning, whereas ‘she is not unintelligent’ has a (guardedly) positive meaning. So when does negative + negative = positive?
A statement with a double negative in formal contemporary English usually has an affirmative (= positive) meaning.
For example, if someone were to say: “Charles Dickens’s novels are not unknown in this country”, the speaker means that Dickens’s novels are known in this country.
Sometimes, however, a speaker or writer can make a careless mistake, and use two negative words in a statement which is intended to have a negative meaning.
Such a mistake is reader sm’s “pet peeve”. She found one in an article on the opening ceremony of the recent Olympic Games, written in Yahoo Sports (Canada) of July 27. The offending sentence reads:
“The United Kingdom can no longer fool itself that it is NOT one of the world’s most important nations but could take comfort in still being able to welcome the world to its doorstep and put on one heck of a show in the process.”
A careful reading and re-reading of the sentence would surely tell us that the writer meant to make a negative statement in the first part of the sentence and to say that the UK “can no longer fool itself that it IS one of the world’s most important nations”.
If it was still such an important nation, it would not need to “take comfort” in being able to host the Games and put on an excellent opening ceremony as well.
Although a double negative expression in formal English is usually treated like a positive statement, linguist Otto Jesperson (1860-1943) warned us that “the double negative always modifies the idea, for the result of the whole expression is somewhat different from the simple idea expressed positively.” (OED, quotation under the entry for “double negative”)
There is a lot of truth in what Jesperson said. If a teacher tells a pupil’s parents that “she is not unintelligent”, surely that is less of a compliment than simply telling them that “she is intelligent”. The former statement does seem to be less positive about the pupil’s intelligence, and we expect it to be followed by a “but”, followed by a hesitant pause, like: “She’s not unintelligent, but [pause] she’ll have to apply more of her intelligence to her school work.”
Although double negatives that are correctly used function somewhat like understatements, some of them can draw attention to what is being said and add interest to it.
Here are two examples from Dickens’s David Copperfield, an excellent and readable 19th century novel, first published in 1850 (whose hero is not to be confused with the “magician” or illusionist who adopted that name).
When 12-year-old David was walking from London to Dover in search of his great-aunt, he had to sell his waistcoat at a shop in order to buy food. The price was agreed upon after some haggling. This is how David, who is also the narrator of the novel, puts it:
“My circumstances being so very pressing, however, I said I would take ninepence for it, if he pleased. Mr. Dolloby, not without some grumbling, gave ninepence.” (Chapter 13)
“Not without some grumbling” is a much more effective phrase than “with some grumbling”.
Humour can also be enhanced through the use of the double negative. This is how Dickens (through David) describes two elderly sisters in the novel:
“They both had little bright round twinkling eyes, by the way, which were like birds’ eyes. They were not unlike birds, altogether; having a sharp, brisk, sudden manner, and a little short, spruce way of adjusting themselves, like canaries.” (Chapter 41)
The eyes of these two ladies were said to be like birds’ eyes, but the ladies themselves were not said to be like birds, but “not unlike birds, altogether”. The double negative there draws our attention to this unexpected and hilarious comparison of some of the movements and mannerisms of the two ladies to those of canaries.
The double negative can also act as an intensifier of emotion. For example, we often hear of people saying, several years after the death of a loved one: “Not a day goes by without my thinking of her.” It is a more poignant way of expressing how much a loved one is missed than the affirmative sentence: “I think of her every single day.”
Double negative statements in English didn’t use to have a positive meaning. Maggie Scott pointed out on an OUP website that “during and before the Middle Ages, double negatives were commonplace ...”
Double negatives were and are still used as intensifiers of negative statements in informal speech and many dialects of the British Isles and the United States, although they are now considered ungrammatical in formal English.
To come back to David Copperfield again, let me quote some examples of the use of double negatives as negatives in the speech of the fishing folk at Yarmouth in Norfolk, whom David befriended.
Ham, a young man who was heartbroken when his fiancee ran away with a smooth-talking Londoner, said to David: “No one can never fill the place that’s empty.” (Chapter 32) meaning “No one can ever fill the place that’s empty.” And Ham’s uncle Pegotty said to David: “But it’s gone! Mas’r Davy ... you han’t no call to be afeerd of me ...” (Chapter 32). The second part of the quotation means “you have no need to be afraid of me.”
“Han’t” was an earlier contraction of “have not” and “has not”, while “an’t” was an earlier contraction of “are not”, “am not” and “is not” among the less educated people in England, or in certain dialects. These two words later became fused into “ain’t”, which then became a contraction of “are not”, “am not”, “is not”, “has not” and “have not”.
Though frowned upon by many scholars and not acceptable in formal usage, “ain’t” has become popular in informal usage and particularly in songs, perhaps because it has only one syllable and multiple meanings. It is also often used in a double negative construction to intensify the negative, e.g. in Christina Aguilera’s song, Ain’t No Other Man (= There is no other man), and in Woody Guthrie’s I Ain’t Got No Home Anymore (= I haven’t got a home anymore).
In informal speech, you must have heard the expression “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” (= You haven’t seen anything yet), meaning there are better or worse things to come than what you have seen so far.
> Fadzilah Amin taught English literature at university, but after retirement started teaching English language.
Mind Our English is published once a week on Tuesdays. For comments or enquiries on English usage, please contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org