What’s the Deal with Double Negatives in English?

Not using double negatives in English is one of those rules that everyone who speaks the language has heard of. While it’s not (yet) destined to the scrapheap of outdated grammar rules, for many, not using a double negative seems almost as silly as declaring “they” a plural-only pronoun. After all, when you hear someone saying “I ain’t got nothing”, it’s not like you’re going to get confused by what they mean. According to the double negative rule, however, you should immediately question whether the person actually has something and possibly spend hours contemplating the matter.

Add the fact that double markers are actually how many languages construct the negative, the rule starts to seem increasingly sketchy. And with good reason.

Using maths in grammar

The double negative rule is often said to be grounded in maths. The logic goes that if you add a minus and a minus together, you get a plus. And, of course, in maths, if you subtract a negative, you get a positive. Somewhere down the line, someone decided this is a good way to also create grammar to guide the use of language. And so, doubling your negations is supposed to result in a positive statement. In the example given above, the “ain’t” and “nothing” are supposed to add up to the person, in reality, having something.

So does Mick Jagger actually get some satisfaction then?

The short answer is “no”. Language is not maths and it makes as little sense to force mathematical rules onto language as it does to declare pronouns subject to gravity. Indeed, for much of the history of English, double negatives were perfectly normal.

Standard shmandard English

The trouble with double negatives started with the standardisation of English. Before the invention of the printing press and widespread literacy, nobody really cared that much about “proper usage”. Different counties and, indeed, even villages often spoke their own dialects of English and, as almost none of it was written down, the grammar police had very little to charge people with. And so, for centuries, double negatives remained a part of everyday life. You can even find it in the work of writers such as Chaucer and Shakespeare – to show how widespread this supposed mistake is.

The trouble started in the 18th century when some overly eager grammarians decided to force a couple of rules onto English (Robert Lowth and Lindley Murray, if you want to name names). Much like the rule of not ending a sentence with a preposition, they sought to make English more like Latin, what they considered the ideal language. The trouble is that English is not Latin, and so this rule is a prime example of a top-down grammar rule, which is not often followed in real life.

Double negatives abound

Even today, in many non-standard versions of English and in colloquial use, double negatives are a widespread and regular occurrence. You can hear it often in Black English (also known as Ebonics or African-American Vernacular English), dialects spoken in various parts of the UK, and in the Southern states of the US.

Additionally, the majority of English-speakers across the world speak it as a second language, and so, there is also the influence from other languages to contend with. In French and Spanish, for example, two languages English comes into a lot of contact with, you do build the negative with two markers. Both Yo no tengo nada and Je n’ai pas rien use negative markers in a way that’s supposed to make the entire sentence positive. And yet, the French and Spanish don’t really seem to have any trouble decoding the meaning.

Conclusion – Double negatives are not recognised in Standard English

And so, as the world grows smaller and the influence languages exert on each other gets more and more tangled, there is hope that even the rule made up by a couple of 18-century reformers will be committed to the scrapheap of history. Until then, however, you’d do well to avoid using a double negative in an official situation. Between the four walls of your own home, however, you’re welcome to say “I ain’t got no time” and “I can’t find the remote nowhere”.