Wednesday, October 03, 2007


Double double negatives negatives

There’s a grammatical rule in English that says, put in William Safire’s Fumblerules style, “Don’t use no double negatives.” Let’s look at that for a bit....

For one thing, the way we treat negatives is specifically English. Consider these:

English: ...more than ever.
Spanish: ...más que nunca.
Translation: ...more than never.


English: Don’t tell me anything.
Spanish: No me digas nada.
Translation: Don’t tell me nothing.


English: Neither red nor green.
Spanish: Ni rojo, ni verde.
Translation: Nor red, nor green

Of course, I’m not suggesting, here, that English should follow the idioms of another language. It’s just an interesting comparison, and it points out why non-native speakers often have trouble with this in English.

But also note that the second, “Don’t tell me nothing,” actually is accepted idiom in some English dialects. While being formally incorrect, it’s certainly in common usage.

Of course, that usage confuses no one; only a child, or someone emulating one, would respond to, “You don’t know nothin’!”, with, “That’s a double negative, so if I don’t know nothing, that means I do know something!”

A usage of negatives that bothers me is one I hear often; often from intelligent, educated people; sometimes, even, on NPR (where I heard one the other day): “I miss not [doing X].”

“I miss not going to the beach.”

“I miss not seeing my brother.”

“I miss not being married.”

The “I miss” gives us the first negative (implying absence), and for the first two we can surely understand that the speaker means to say that she misses going to the beach and that she misses seeing her brother — the “not” is a superfluous second negative. But, well, what about the third example?

Spoken by a recent divorcée, the third would express sadness over the divorce, using the same double negative. But a bored wife might say the same thing, intending to be taken at her word: she pines for the single life.

Another related error with negatives is using “all [X] are not [Y],” when you mean “not all [X] are [Y].” Years ago, someone in the technical publications department sent a note around, listing the publication numbers for manuals for a new product that was soon coming out. One of the recipients tried to order a couple of them, and the order failed because the pub numbers were “invalid”. He questioned this, and the guy who’d sent the list said, “Yes, all those manuals aren’t available yet.” Then why, one of us asked, did you give us the list now if we can’t order any of them? “Well,” he said, “because you can order some of them now, of course.” He didn’t add, “you idiot,” but it came across anyway.

And, of course, the point is that it wasn’t the one questioning him who was the idiot. What the pubs guy had meant to say, though he didn’t know it, was, “Not all of them are available yet.” Or, alternatively, “Some of them aren’t available yet.”

And that’s why confusion with negatives can be... confusing. You know what you mean when you mangle them. But don’t be surprised when others aren’t sure, or misinterpret you outright.

There’s a reason we use standard language when we want to communicate.

Not to call out song lyrics as exemplars of anything, of course, but another familiar double negative comes from a 42-year-old song by the Rolling Stones:

I can’t get no satisfaction.


Ray said...

I miss not...

Thank you! This one annoys me, too, although when I point it out I almost invariably get the response "Oh, don't be so picky, you know what I mean".

There's one more phrase in wide use here (in the US, I mean), which also drives me crazy: "hot water heater".

My apologies. Let me climb down from my soapbox before I get too carried away, although I have to say it is always fun picking holes in the way that others abuse the language what I uses so good.

Dr. Momentum said...

I thought "I miss not..." meant exactly what it sounds like, namely that the speaker misses the absence of something. Like the bride who misses "not being married" or, in other words, being single.

Obviously, this language quirk was completely lost on me. I didn't even know people were using it to mean something different until I read this post.

So, as opposed to Ray, I really *would not* have known what that person meant.

I have to say, I couldn't care less about people who don't take the time to use clear diction.

(Yes, that was supposed to be a joke.)

The Ridger, FCD said...

Standard English uses indefinites where most (possibly all) other IE languages - including Early Modern English and earlier - use "reinforcing negatives" or "negative concord". Language isn't math - if it was, "I don't know nothing about birthing no babies" would be acceptable. It's a shibboleth, handed down from the 18th century. Not that we'll get rid of it, but let's not pretend it's anything other than a shibboleth.

Overnegation - your "I miss not" - is a very interesting performance problem. The guys at Language Log have been looking into it. Common examples also include "Its importance can't be underestimated" and "You can't fail to miss it", not to mention Fowler's favorite "It's not going to rain today, I don't think." It's a different error.

The third thing you mention - "Not all are" vs "all are not" is a problem of negative scope: how much of the sentence does the "not" control. Again, natural language not being math, for some speakers the not has broad scope - applying to the verb (all of them aren't available DOES mean, to many speakers NOT ALL ARE) while for others it has limited scope - applying only to the word it's next to. It's most likely due to the ruthless eradication of the reinforcing negatives, leaving us with only one to be used and the feeling that there are several places in the sentence where one could be fitted. Different people choose different slots.

ps - "neither red nor green" does exhibit negative concord. To be consistent, we should say "neither red or green", shouldn't we? ;-)

The Ridger, FCD said...

also - please, please, please: if you want anybody who actually knows about language to take you seriously, never quote Safire approvingly.

Barry Leiba said...

Oh, I didn't comment on Mr Safire's aptitude for language, only his way of putting things. Whether it be "nattering nabobs of negativism" or the titles of the chapters in "Fumblerules", I do often like his turns of phrase.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Oooo. Negatives and modality are a fascinating study, as are those phrases in English which are so negatively polar that they mean the same thing whether there's an overt negative in them or not - as in "could[n't] care less", "[don't] know jack", "teach you [not] to", and so on.