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
with a negative slant, like
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
the meaning is construed differently: adding a negative before a word with one of these prefixes is understood to neutralize the negative and create a positive. These particular examples, separate from those above, are considered to be a literary
. In litotes, a person uses a double negative to understate an affirmative. Here are some examples:
- 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.