The myth of the double negative?

Good morning.

Something on Facebook caught my attention yesterday. It was a joke about language, something along the lines of a lecturer saying in English a double negative become a positive, in some languages a double negative is still a negative but in no language does a double positive become a negative. And then the punch line is someone says ‘Yeah, right.’

Well that got me thinking. And yes, before anyone says anything, I do know its a joke, but that’s doesn’t stop me thinking these things. Imagine going to the cinema with me, its hell I’m told.

Its a fairly common statement that two negative words make a positive statement, but that makes no sense. You don’t write or say ‘No never’ and mean ‘Yes’, it emphasises the negative meaning. And I’m certain I’ve seen somewhere, in one of the books I have about Old English that the double negative is used to emphasise the negative point, in Old English.

So why, if logically this idea makes no sense, do people continue to perpetuate it?

I have two hypotheses as to why this is.
The first involves maths and science; in these subjects it is the case that a negative number added to a negative number gives a positive number. Thus the idea is drilled in to young minds that this is the case in ALL things.
But language and maths are the same things and they don’t have the same rules, so the rules of mathematics are irrelevant when it comes to language.

My second hypothesis involves people who think that there is only one ‘correct’ way to speak/write English. Perhaps, some years ago, when mass education arrived in England, some people got sick of others saying ‘aint nowt’ or similar phrases. These are perfectly correct dialect ways negate a sentence, but they aren’t standard English. And so began the myth of the double negative. Snobbery is responsible, not logic.

I have absolutely no proof that either of theses ideas are relevant, except personal experience – I had a strong
regional accent as a child and was repeatedly told I must lose my accent and speak out of dialect (to borrow a phrase) or I’d never get anywhere in
life; the reasoning behind this? The person who told me so had been told the same thing by his teachers seventy years ago so it must be true – and logic.

So is it true that a double negative in English makes a statement positive? No, not at all. As far I am aware. Let me know if I’m wrong, I’d love to see the sources. Seriously, I would. I’m a bit strange like that.




One thought on “The myth of the double negative?

  1. The appeal to math/logic isn’t good, because in logic negation turns a *false* sentence into a *true* one, whereas in grammar negation turns an *affirmative* sentence into a *negative* one. Comparing the two kinds of negation is comparing apples and oranges.

    Your second hypothesis is closer to the truth. It’s just an arbitrary standard of language: you aren’t supposed to do double negative in formal English. It’s nothing to do with how English grammar actually works.

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