English grammar – Double negatives
In this post you will learn the English grammar for Double negatives, and how to use them in natural English conversation.
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This post 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.
Word order is important!
*In another context this sentence is actually okay. Thanks to Brett Pierce for leaving a comment for me at the end of this post:
‘I can’t do nothing’ is actually a perfectly comprehensible statement in the right context. It’s often used when people express that they must act or respond to a situation. In this context, the meaning is crystal clear.
This is true, and this sentence can be used to show that someone must do something in a given situation. Not doing anything (doing nothing) is not a possibility.
Double negatives are still widely used in English where they don’t seem to cause any confusion as to the intended meaning. Nevertheless, they aren’t considered acceptable in current standard English and you should avoid them in all but very informal situations. Just use a single negative instead.
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.
I would understand that incorrect grammar can make the song more interesting! ♫
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).
You can see affirmatives and negatives are direct opposites. We can use the adverb not (or the contraction n’t) to show a negative or we can use a negative word like never, nowhere, no-one etc. Words with a negative prefix like un, in, dis or non also have a negative meaning. Examples:
- unpopular – not popular
- incomplete – not finished
- dishonest – not honest
- non-smoking – you cannot smoke here
“Kyle doesn’t know nothing about computers.”
The speaker is using 2 negative words to strongly show that Kyle doesn’t know computers well. Here the 2 negatives cancel each other, so this grammar is incorrect. We don’t use this sentence in natural English.
“Kyle doesn’t know anything about computers.”
“Kyle knows nothing about computers.”
Increase your English vocabulary! Learn 40 Words with NEGATIVE prefixes
“The puppy in the window was so cute! I couldn’t not buy him!”
“You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
“I don’t regret not going to the party.”
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
English grammar – Double negatives
Using double negatives can be tricky, but remember your word order and you will be okay in less formal situations. There is nothing you can’t do! I believe in you!
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