Multiple negation and the meaning of ‘grammar’

April 24, 2015

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.

Nietzsche never copied nobody

May 26, 2010


I live in my own place
have never copied nobody even half,
and at any master who lacks the grace
to laugh at himself — I laugh.


Apparently this verse of Nietzsche’s was inscribed over the door of his house. There are many things I like about it, not least its emphatic double negative — or is that double-and-a-half?

Grammar to go

March 26, 2010

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.

[more signs]