Grammar to go

I saw this sign through the door of a fast food restaurant in Galway:

The use of double negatives to express a single negation (I didn’t do nothin’; I can’t get no satisfaction) is sometimes criticised for being illogical. But although double negatives (aka negative concord) are not Standard English, they’re not illogical; indeed, they are a common feature of some other languages and some non-standard English dialects. So the original construction wasn’t necessarily wrong — just ill-judged. On balance I prefer the revision, if only because it shows a degree of care for clarity that’s unusual in such signs.

Punctuation in these contexts is often piecemeal or entirely absent. In the example above, there are various ways to imagine it. The lines read like bullet points, but we could make prose (if not music) with a well-placed dash, semicolon, comma or full stop. Too many marks might seem fussy, whereas the hands-on amendment has a certain honest charm. If the management are as conscientious about the taste of their special sauce as they are about the readability of their signs, business should be good.

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24 Responses to Grammar to go

  1. Alan Palmer says:

    Whereabouts was the sign placed? It’s possible that the amendment might have been made by the hand of a customer, rather than the management of the restaurant. There are several busy-bodies who seem to enjoy adding or removing apostrophies, changing “fewer” to “lesser”, and the like when they come across a sign that offends their sense of “correct” English.

  2. Stan says:

    Alan: The sign was behind the counter, but it’s certainly possible that a customer crept in and took the initiative, or that a staff member was responsible. Guerrilla proofreading does seem to be a popular hobby for some people. They can get quite agitated about apostroflies, invisible hyphens, and other such entities.

  3. Fran says:

    In response to what Alan says, I used to teach in a school where a parent regularly sent those ‘detach the slip and give back to form tutor’ slips back having corrected anything he judged to be a mistake by putting a red ring around it. I hasten to add that this never happened on any letters I sent out myself ….

  4. Stan says:

    Fran: I hope he knew his stuff. Compulsive correcting in a non-professional capacity is not a reliable indicator of linguistic sense!

  5. Fran says:

    I think it was just a case of ‘I pay good money to send my son to this school, so I expect linguistic perfection as well as hearty school meals and some medals in sport’.

  6. Stan says:

    That sounds like a powerful red pen. I wonder where he got it.

  7. Sean Jeating says:

    Lest this does not completely become an off-topic comment:
    Dear Stan, I don’t hope you won’t have a magnificent weekend.

  8. Claudia says:

    Hahaha! I came FIVE TIMES to read Sean’s comments before I finally understood how humourous it was. I’m no good at nothing…Don’t tell anyone, on Sunday, I’m your student, Stan. Have fun with the Irish, famous Irish friend.

  9. wisewebwoman says:

    I wiped out the first two nos, added two questions and one exclamation marks and let the sign stand as written.
    Credit Given?
    Free Food?
    Under no circumstances!
    XO
    WWW

  10. Stan says:

    Thanks Sean. I’ve nothing against off-topic comments, and your kind wishes are never unappreciated.

    Claudia: Thank you! May I never ever be famous, or even infamous. I would rather disappear.

    WWW: That’s an imaginative approach that would get the message across most emphatically. If you were to sign off as “The Management XO”, it would ease the disappointment of refusal.

  11. I would suggest a new sign. The amended one looks more embarrassing (to me anyway) that the incorrect one

  12. Why state ‘no free food’ at all? Is it usual for fast food restaurants in Galway to give away food?

  13. Stan says:

    Jams: I’ll let you know if they upgrade it, but I’ll be surprised if they do.

    JD: Good question! It’s probably not usual, but maybe they’ve been asked for free food enough to make a pre-emptive refusal worth their while.

  14. David says:

    In Old English, double negatives were actually pretty common. They were used for emphatic negation.

  15. Ray Girvan says:

    David: They were used for emphatic negation.

    The classic being Chaucer’s “He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde. In al his lyf unto no maner wight”, which translates more or less as “In all his life he never hadn’t said nothing bad to no-one”.

  16. Sean Jeating says:

    Additional to David’s remark: Neither it’s uncommon in German(y).
    Example:
    – Willst du mich veräppeln?
    – Nie würde ich dich veräppeln. Niemals nicht.
    Or:
    – Das würde ich niemals nicht tun.

    – Are you trying to josh me?
    – Never I’d try to josh you. Never not.
    Or:
    Never not I’d do that.

    Well, nowadays more envogue is the super-superlative. Thus the answer would rather sound like:
    – In keinster Weise! / In nottest way.

    The peace of the night.
    Suppose, it will become a short one, Stan. Hm? Enjoy!
    Ah, and congrats to Eolaí.

  17. Claudia says:

    We use double negatives in French to enforce some situations. Ce n’est pas rien (It’s not nothing). Je ne vois plus personne (I don’t see anyone anymore). Long list of when it’s good, when it’s bad. I follow my ears!…

    Good for Culch.ie. Congrats!

  18. Tim says:

    In Asian languages, they answer negative questions in the opposite way to English. Whether a sentence is positive or negative, answering in the affirmative is always an answer that favours the polarity of the question — whereas in English, we answer negative questions where our answer favours the question itself. If that makes sense…

    For example:
    “Aren’t you coming?”
    Japanese/Korean: “Yes” (meaning, that’s right, I’m not coming).
    English: “Yes” (meaning, yes, I am coming — why would you think otherwise?)
    Japanese/Korean: “No” (meaning, no you are wrong, I am coming).
    English: “No” (an agreement with the question, meaning, no, I’m not coming).

    In Japanese, you also extend invitations in the negative: ケーキを食べません? (keiki o tabemasen?) – lit. “not eat cake?” – meaning, “Won’t you eat some cake?”.

    There are also double-negatives to give positive meaning, but it’s beyond my level of understanding. :)

  19. Stan says:

    David; Ray: That’s true — Old and Middle English. Using multiple non-cancelling negatives seems to have been a standard construction in most if not all dialects until a few centuries ago. It’s common in Shakespeare’s work, but it was strongly censured by grammarians in the 18th century, and their influence probably still obtains. Jespersen described the practice as spreading “a thin layer of negative colouring over the whole of the sentence instead of confining it to one single place”.

    Sean; Claudia: Thanks for the German and French examples! Many languages seem to add negatives for emphasis without entangling them in rules borrowed awkwardly from Latin or mathematical logic. Who knows, maybe double (and multiple) negatives will eventually become standard and socially acceptable in English again. (P.S. I’ve updated my post about the blog awards.)

    Tim: Thanks for the insight from the East. I imagine that approach would take a little getting used to! French and German have si and doch, respectively, to contradict a negative question or statement, and apparently the Scandinavian languages have equivalent terms. I’ve always felt that English could do with one.

  20. Jo says:

    Hi Stan :)

    You’re far too clever for me and my poor tired brain today, but I’m delighted, and I’ll be back soon!

  21. Stan says:

    Welcome, Jo! After the Galway get-together, I think there are a lot of poor tired brains around Ireland waiting to catch up on sleep.

  22. herself says:

    Along similar lines. Growing up in the late fifties, I went to primary school in a small village in Co. Mayo and the teacher had her grammatical pet hates – the chief ones were the common “I done it” and “S/he does be/I do be”. Present it in an essay and the offense was actually cut out of the copy and the offender sent out to the garden near the turf shed at the back of the school, with a shovel…I kid you not. Some poor unfortunate classmates found the humiliation of holes on the pages of their copies worse than the burial process. I do be anxious even now, fifty years later when I recall it

  23. Stan says:

    Herself: That is astonishing. It seems a very Irish-Catholic kind of punishment: neglecting to address the appropriateness or otherwise of the supposed error, but sadistically stressing the shame of it — as if it were some kind of dirty sinful secret. The teacher sounds like a quintessential peevologist, in this case armed with a scissors and shovel.

    “I done it” and “S/he does be/I do be” are not Standard English, and might be described as vulgarisms by someone comfortable with the social prejudice of that term. But the expressions are normal in non-standard dialects, and not at all shameful or deserving of humiliating treatment. “I done it” is common in regional dialects, and despite some prescriptivist protests it is not ungrammatical. The “do be” formation is a Hiberno-English approximation of the consuetudinal tense of Irish, used to convey habitual activity or existence. But it’s probably too late to bring your old teacher up to date on these matters.

  24. [...] your peeves and cures Blog comments don’t usually astonish me. Here’s an exception: Growing up in the late fifties, I went to primary school in a small village in Co. Mayo and the [...]

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