English grammar – Double negatives

English grammar – Double negatives

I was reading a book 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. 

“There is nothing I can’t do.”
 
Nothing = no thing. Can’t = can not.
 This is the same as saying “I can do anything.”

Word order is important!

 
If we change the sentence pattern a little the sentence becomes strange.
 
“I can’t do nothing.” ???
English grammar - Double negatives
In this sentence pattern, the 2 negatives would actually make a positive.
 
● Remember: 
Nothing = no thing. Can’t = can not. So this sentence is saying “I can not do no thing.” If you can’t do no thing, can you do something?
 
The meaning is confusing so this sentence is not acceptable.
 
I can’t do nothing.”
 
What about our first sentence “There is nothing I can’t do.” Is it correct grammar? According to Oxford Dictionaries.com 

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.

https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/grammar/double-negatives

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.

English grammar - Double negatives

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…
 
English grammar - Double negatives

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).

 
(+) “Eric likes pizza.”                  “She’s bored.”
 
(-) “Eric doesn’t like pizza.”        “She’s not bored.”
 
(?) “Does Eric like pizza?”          “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 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
vocabulary list
Here is another example:

“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.

 It’s correct to use a single negative to express this idea. Here are 2 ways that are grammatically correct. Each sentence uses only 1 negative.
 

“Kyle doesn’t know anything about computers.” 

OR

“Kyle knows nothing about computers.”

double negative

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Double negatives are sometimes used by native speakers if the meaning is clear. 

“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.
double negative
 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. (If you think what happened was good, get ready for something greater.) 
Check out these 2 short video clips:
 
 

REVIEW

If double negatives are used in the same sentence to emphasize a negative meaning the sentence is not acceptable.
Kyle doesn’t know nothing about computers.”

 

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.”

This means that I’m not sad or upset that I didn’t go.

 

The sentence “Kyle doesn’t know nothing about computers.” fails because it is trying to express a negative meaning.

 

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!

 

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

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nrIPxlFzDi0

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

Useful English resource pages that helped with this blog post:
 
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double negatives

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