What is a Double Negative?

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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 27 November 2018
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A double negative is the use of two negatives in a single clause. Although this construction is used in informal language to intensify a negative meaning, in formal language it is usually considered unacceptable. This is because the words have the effect of canceling each other out, leaving a positive meaning, rather than intensifying a negative. The best approach to this construction, as with other language issues, is for the speaker or writer to consider the context as he decides how to most effectively communicate what he wishes to say.

The force of a double negative construction includes obviously negative words like

not ain’t no none never nowhere
barely scarcely hardly.

Common double negative situations and possible ways to convey them in more formal situations are listed below. Writers should notice that, in each case, one of the negative words has been replaced with a word having a positive meaning, so the net negatives in the sentence are reduced. The word any often appears in the formal versions. The same sentiment is being expressed in each case, although the language is different.

  • I don’t need none. → I don’t need any.
  • I don’t want to go nowhere. → I don’t want to go anywhere.
  • I can’t get no satisfaction. → I can’t get any satisfaction.
  • I’m not gonna do no homework today. → I’m not going to do any homework today.
  • I barely got no sleep last night. → I barely got any sleep last night.
  • It was so hot, I couldn’t hardly breathe. → It was so hot, I could hardly breathe.

There are also occasions in which triple negatives are used to evoke an even greater sense of negation:

  • I ain’t never gonna do no homework.
  • I ain’t gonna take nothing from nobody.
  • You ain’t never gonna go nowhere with me if you act like that.

In formal situations, these would also be reduced to the use of a single negative:

  • I’m not ever going to do any homework.
  • I’m not going to take anything from anybody.
  • You aren’t ever going to go anywhere with me if you act like that.

With words that have negative prefixes, like

in- un- non-
  • That person is not unfamiliar to me. → That person is familiar to me.
  • This essay is clearly not nonsense. → This essay is clearly sensible.
  • I receive a not insufficient allowance. → I receive a sufficient allowance.

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Post 20

A double negative should never be used.

Post 19

I couldn't care less seems to be a double negative because of "less" and "not" If you could not care less, I guess you care a lot. Why is "I couldn't care less" acceptable and "I could care less" disapproved? If I could care less, that means I don't care as much as I did before, or as much as anyone else does. I couldn't care less equals I could care much.

Post 16

What is the proper response if the question is: "How are you"? Since the word "you" is a noun, is "I'm good" a correct response? Or, is it still "I'm well"?

Post 13

@intel47: I don't understand why you get angry over someone saying "I could care less" rather than, "I couldn't care less." Is that not simply implying that they could, in fact, care less about the situation?

Languages evolve. We need to stop crying over things such as double negatives used in the right context, and more about teaching people the basics of spelling and punctuation.

If a double negative is used to state a positive in a negative light, I believe it was used correctly.

"I ain't going nowhere."

If, however, the double negative is used to imply a negative, then there is a problem.

"I never did nothing wrong."

Post 12

Are you kidding? Double negatives are completely acceptable in colloquial English (particularly in specific dialects), because in informal language the grammar is described, not prescribed, meaning the rules fluctuate based on common usage. Do yourselves a favor and take a linguistics class.

Post 11

@anon129488: I think you meant, "I cannot kill it with one shot."

Using "can't" and "not" at the same time would make the sentence a double negative, but your grammar is incorrect.

Post 10

Is this an example?

I don't get why they can't label the dryers that don't work.

Is this example a situation where a double negative is allowed?

It's late so forgive me if this sounds stupid.

Post 9

To use a double negative is pure laziness. Learn your language and speak it properly. There are no shortcuts.

Post 8

Just a quick question. Wouldn't the sentence: "I can't not kill it with one shot." be a double negative?

Post 6

I agree, nobody should use double negatives.

Post 5

I cannot stand it when I see double negatives on tests! you would think a professional association would know better!

Post 4

Oh my God, double negatives are never acceptable in English! How can you possibly say otherwise?

Anyone reading this website -- please realize it is not acceptable to use double negatives in informal or formal language!

Post 3

I am stunned to find that someone has actually posted that double negatives are OK in informal speech. Never! Even St. Cloud State posted that it was OK. Don't leave the farm then. It is not acceptable. Period.

Good is an adjective and well is an adverb. An adjective modifies a noun, an adverb modifies an verb. 'Doing' is a verb, so the answer to "How are you doing" can only be answered with 'well': "I am doing well, thank you." not 'doing good'-- an adjective cannot modify a verb.

Post 1

I have heard the phrase, "I could care less" rather than, "I couldn't care less." I find I almost cringe when I hear less-than acceptable grammar and...when a person isn't articulate.

I've noticed even on television, "went (or gone) missing" rather than disappeared when a person is involved. You did really good rather than well. University education t.v. anchor/reporters, tend to be sloppy when it comes to using adverbs. I'd have thought by the time "talking heads" were on television, correct grammar and articulation, would be part of what they talk about...apparently not.

I had a typing teacher in high school, who attempted to teach us verbs and adverbs but somehow, along the way, the grammar gets forgotten.

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