Multiple negation and the meaning of ‘grammar’

I have two more posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. (Yes, I mentioned a prior couple just a week ago – I wasn’t keeping up!)

First: Grammar at cross purposes highlights a common source of unnecessary strife over language use: the meaning of grammar, by which linguists usually mean syntax, morphology, and so on – the rules we pick up informally when we’re very young. By contrast:

When non-linguists talk about grammar, they are normally referring to more transient things like spelling, style, and conventions of usage. This discrepancy between the technical and popular interpretations of ‘grammar’ fosters uncertainty and disagreement over what a grammatical rule is, and what therefore counts as correct. Disputants may be at cross purposes because advice on ‘grammar’ is often simply instruction on style and usage. . . .

Grammar rules, as I once tweeted, come from how people use language. They emerge from the bottom up; they are not imposed top-down from logic, Latin, or some higher ideal.


One example of a ‘rule’ imposed by decree from logic, Latin, and higher ideals is the proscription against multiple negation, better known as double negatives.

Ain’t nothin’ (grammatically) wrong with no double negatives addresses this perennial point of controversy, looking over the usage’s long history in different varieties of English and how it came to be ostracised from reputable use:

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage reports Otto Jespersen’s observation that because negation in English has often been marked subtly – ‘by no more than an unstressed particle like old ne or modern -n’t’ – speakers have long tended to reinforce it with additional negation. So the double negative is a feature of many dialects, and indeed was once common even in the literary English of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Defoe. But that was before it gained a bad reputation, the result more of social than of grammatical pressures.

The post then briefly documents double negatives’ fall from grace as a result of unwarranted pejoration from 18thC grammarians and those who’ve carried the torch for them ever since.

Older posts can be read in my archive at Macmillan.

21 Responses to Multiple negation and the meaning of ‘grammar’

  1. Ben Zimmer says:

    As it happens, the latest episode of the Lexicon Valley podcast also addresses double negatives.

    • Stan Carey says:

      So I noticed! I listened to it during the week and was going to email them, but since my next post at Macmillan (to be published on Monday) is about litotes, I’ll defer the communiqué till then.

  2. astraya says:

    The problem with saying ‘two negatives make a positive’ is that, logically, ‘three negatives make a negative, so that ‘I never done nothing’ is ‘positive’ and ‘I never done nothing to nobody’ is ‘negative’.

  3. azzurosky says:

    The double negative is standard in Italian. “Non faccio niente” for “I ain’t doing nothing”.

  4. Stan Carey says:

    David: Indeed. Double-negative sticklers never take their logic to that logical end-point; it’s just a rhetorical facade for a peeve with roots in social attitudes or unexamined habit.

    azzurosky: Yes, it’s common in many languages (as my post briefly notes).

  5. The problem is, people who know only one language are not really interested in how double or triple negatives work in other languages. I tried to use this as an argument in a discussion online and was immediately dismissed as an ignoramus.

    • Stan Carey says:

      In those cases it may be more effective to refer to the construction’s long history in all varieties of English and its legitimate contemporary use in various dialects. In other words, to show that standard English is the anomaly. Of course, sometimes people just aren’t interested in the facts; they would prefer to retain their biases and prejudices.

  6. astraya says:

    We have to decide whether we are talking about ‘English’ or ‘Standard English’. To many people they are the same thing, but sensible people know that they’re not. Huddleston and Pullum (in A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar) don’t discuss double negatives in the main part of the chapter, but have a box titled ‘Prescriptive grammar note’, in which they say “Prescriptive manuals are right to say that the negative concord construction is not Standard English”.
    You said “standard English is the anomaly”, which suggests either that most varieties of English have ‘double negatives’ or that those varieties have greater numbers of speakers. I haven’t seen any studies about this, bearing in mind that non-standard varieties of any language are by their nature uncodified. Wikipedia (due apologies for citing) says: “*some* contemporary dialects employ it” (emphasis added).
    It also says “it is present in Old English and Middle English”. Two nights ago I started yet another attempt to read at least the general prologue to ‘The Canterbury Tales’, and last night after reading your comment above, read the part which says of the knight: “He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde / In all his lyf unto no maner wight”.
    That put me in mind of “The Big Bang Theory”, in one episode of which Sheldon says to Amy: “I would not object to us no longer characterizing you as not my girlfriend.” She replies: “Interesting, now try it without the quadruple negative.”

    • Stan Carey says:

      ‘I would not object to us no longer characterizing you as not my girlfriend.’

      Obviously that’s a comedic example, but it’s not dissimilar from what people tend to say in more serious contexts. I think the strict prohibition of multiple negation in formal varieties of English may often be why people end up in such knots of misnegation.

  7. What about the word ‘linguistic’? Friends who have spent years studying linguistics get very annoyed with my casual use of the word.

  8. Stan Carey says:

    That’s a good example of a similar situation, Anita. Linguistic, like grammar, has both technical and broad meanings: it can refer generally to language or words, or it can refer more specifically to linguistics. In a recent post on jargon in fiction I mentioned a book that had a ‘linguistic detail’ I wanted to analyse, but I changed this to ‘stylistic detail’ because it was a better fit with what I meant.

  9. MWarhol says:

    The best multiply-negative sentence in my experience was spoken by (I assume from context) a salesman complaining to a colleague: “I ain’t never had nobody not buy nothin’ before!” Completely and immediately comprehensible to any American.

    • Stan Carey says:

      MWarhol: And to this Irishman – I think! I’m hearing it with main stress on never and nothin’, and infer it to mean that people have always bought something, i.e., ‘I’ve never had someone buy nothing before’. It’s a wonderful line.

  10. John Cowan says:

    I’ve always understood the torch that is carried to be one of unrequited love, not forthcoming lynching, so your last sentence seriously misled me.

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