Can You Use a Double Negative in English?

Can You Use a Double Negative in English?

Mar 12

Many languages not only allow for double negatives, but even require them. In English we are taught to avoid them like the plague. Unwittingly, many teachers insist there are no double negatives in English. While, according to the spirit of things, they may be right, technically it just is not quite so cut and dry.

What is a double negative? Well, traditionally, it is illustrated with the kind of usage: I don’t want to not go to the dance. Double negatives, however, are the usage of a negative twice in the same sentence. Sometimes it is justified and sometimes it is not. We will see cases of both.

The correction to the double negative in our example is not so simple, actually. Some teachers might approach it mathematically and say it means I want to go to the dance, simply eliminating the two negatives (two negatives make a positive in Mathematics). That is impossible here, though. It is saying the person is not against going to the dance, not that they actually are looking forward to it. So the correct sentence would look something like this I am not opposed to going to the dance or I am not against going to the dance or Going to the dance is not a bad idea.

As you can see, correcting double negatives is not a simple task. Let’s try another one: Analyzing the data was not impossible. Yes, this is actually a double negative, though it is permitted by nearly every English teacher in the world. Im- is a prefix that negates the adjective to which it is attached. The corrected sentence is straight forward and you do not lose any of the sense that was attempted with the double negative: Analyzing the data was possible. Other negating prefixes are categorized similarly to im-, such as de-, un-, etc…  However, we are now seeing that double negatives are actually allowed in English.

When we get to the level of dialogs we find another interesting double negative that is usually not allowed in other languages, which provide safe harbor for the kind that English disallows. Consider:

John: Did you go to the movies last night with Julie?

Tom: No, I didn’t.

Tom is already answering with the negative when he says No, so why would he have to say not after the verb did? He is answering in the negative again to the same question and within the same sentence. It is a double negative.

On the one hand, there are legitimate double negatives in the English language. They are commonly employed in daily use and even formal usage. However, certain forms of double negatives must be tended to. Care must be taken to correct them according to the logic implied in the ungrammatical double negative which was originally created.