In this post you will learn how to use Double negatives in natural English conversation. Get your free NEGATIVE PREFIX and Quiz printable worksheet at the end of this post!
Double negatives are common in very casual and informal conversations. Especially if they don’t cause any confusion and the meeting is still clear from the situation. Most of today’s English grammar resources consider them incorrect so you should limit their use to friendly and casual conversations.
- Double Negatives in English
- Double Negatives ESL
- Double Negatives examples
- Double Negatives rules
- Double Negatives examples in popular Music
- Double Negatives PDF worksheet(s)
- Double Negatives Conclusion
Double Negatives in English
This double negatives rules post idea came from a book I was reading the other day. In the book, a university student says:
- “There is nothing I can’t do.”
This is a common phrase that uses 2 negative words in a sentence. Remember, this sentence is “quoting” what a university student said, we don’t often use double negatives in writing. These kinds of double negatives are more common in casual conversations.
Let’s take a closer look at how the double negatives change the meaning of this sentence.
- “There is nothing I can’t do.”
Nothing = no thing. Can’t = can not.
In this sentence, the two negatives make a positive. This is like saying:
- “I can do anything.”
So the sentence “There is nothing I can’t do.” is used in informal conversations, but is it correct grammar?
According to Oxford Dictionaries.com
So the sentence “There is nothing I can’t do.” is not correct grammar, but it is acceptable in less formal situations because the meaning is clear.
Songs that use Double Negatives
Many song lyrics sometimes will use a double negative for effect, for the art of songwriting, but we don’t use these in conversation. If you told me you “can’t get no satisfaction” I would correct your grammar.
But if you sang… “♫I can’t get no satisfaction♫”
I would understand that incorrect grammar can make the song more interesting!
|“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” is a song recorded by the English rock band the Rolling Stones. It is one of the world’s most popular songs, and was No. 31 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list in 2021. Wikipedia|
You can listen to the song on YouTube in the Double Negative song links at the bottom of this post.
Double Negatives ESL
Let’s look at how we express ourselves in more detail and we’ll look closely at negatives.
There are 3 basic ways to communicate, affirmative (positive), negative and interrogative (question).
|Eric likes pizza.||Eric doesn’t like pizza.||Does Eric like pizza?|
|She’s bored.||“She’s not bored.||Is she bored?|
You can see affirmatives and negatives are direct opposites. We can use the adverb not (or the contraction n’t) to show a negative. We can also use a negative word like never, nowhere, no-one etc. Words with a negative prefix like un, in, im, dis or non also have a negative meaning. Examples:
- unpopular – not popular
- incomplete – not finished
- impolite – not polite
- dishonest – not honest
- non-smoking – you cannot smoke here
Here is an example of an incorrect use of a double negative. *Not only ESL students, native speakers will sometimes use these kinds of incorrect DOUBLE NEGATIVES.
“Kyle doesn’t know nothing about computers.” INCORRECT
The speaker is using 2 negative words because they want to strongly show that Kyle doesn’t know computers well. However the 2 negatives cancel each other, so this grammar is incorrect. We don’t use this sentence in natural English.
“Kyle doesn’t know nothing about computers.”
Double Negatives examples
It’s correct to use a single negative to express this idea. We just learned that the sentence
“Kyle doesn’t know nothing about computers.” is incorrect.
Here are 2 ways that are grammatically correct. Each sentence uses only 1 negative.
- “Kyle doesn’t know anything about computers.”
- “Kyle knows nothing about computers.”
Some more examples of correcting a double negative.
“I ain’t got no luck.” INCORRECT
- I don’t have any luck.
- I have no luck.
I didn’t do nothing today. INCORRECT
- I didn’t do anything today.
- I did nothing today.
I was thirsty but the store didn’t have no bottled water. INCORRECT
- I was thirsty but the store didn’t have any bottled water.
- I was thirsty but the store had no bottled water.
Double negatives are sometimes used by native speakers if the meaning is clear. *Remember that these are only used in informal conversations.
“The puppy in the window was so cute! I couldn’t not buy him!”
This means ~ I had to buy the puppy because he was so cute. If we can’t not do something it means we must do it.
You may have heard double negatives in popular movies or songs. The following phrase is from a popular song from 1974 and I hear it in movies and on TV sometimes:
- “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
This means ~ Something special or great is coming. What you have already seen is nothing compared to what is coming next. (If you think what has already happened was good, get ready for something greater.)
Check out these 2 short video clips:
Double Negatives rules
If double negatives are used in the same sentence to emphasize a negative meaning the sentence is not acceptable.
X“Kyle doesn’t know nothing about computers.”X
At the beginning of this post, we learned that “There is nothing I can’t do.” is acceptable because we can understand the intended meaning clearly. This sentence also has a positive meaning. “I can do anything.”
Here is one more possible example of an acceptable double negative with a positive meaning.
- “I don’t regret not going to the party.”
The fact that I didn’t go to the party doesn’t make me sad or upset. Two negatives are used but the feeling is positive and easily understood.
The sentence “Kyle doesn’t know nothing about computers.” fails because it is trying to express a negative meaning.
Double Negatives examples in popular Music
Here is a list of some songs that use double negatives. The songs have YouTube links (with lyrics) in case you want to listen to them!
(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction – The Rolling Stones
Ain’t No Mountain High Enough – Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell
Don’t Come Around Here No More – Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers
I Don’t Trust Nobody – George Thorogood
You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet – Bachman Turner Overdrive
Ain’t No Other Man – Christina Aguilera
Double Negatives PDF worksheet(s)
Download my Double Negative Quiz as a printable PDF worksheet. Great for teachers to use with private or group classes.
PDF Negative Pefix LIST
- 40 common vocabulary words
- 40 example sentences
- AND Audio pronunciation links
Double Negatives Conclusion
Are you still confused? DON’T WORRY!!!! Just stick to the positive vocabulary to express yourself 🙂 If you hear a double negative that sounds odd but you can sense the meaning is positive, now you can understand it!
Using double negatives can be tricky, just remember the Double negatives rules and you will be okay.
- There is nothing you can’t do! I believe in you!
Special thanks to Grammarly for help with this post.