Monday, August 5, 2013

The Top Twenty Grammar Errors: Double Negatives

Today’s grammar error is the double negative.
A double negative occurs when two negative words are used in the same clause:
I did not do nothing.
The standard wisdom is that two negatives make a positive, so the above sentence actually means that I did indeed do something. However, English is not math and writing should never be confused with math.
The Old English West Saxon dialect was once considered the standard, more pure, and proper dialect of English. And West Saxon had double negatives going all over the place, believed by many modern day linguists to be totally random occurrences, neither wrong nor correct but simply flavorings of the language.

But in 2006, linguist Richard Ingham published an article in Language Variation and Change, a quarterly language journal, that argued double negatives in the West Saxon dialect were deliberate, that the use of a double negative was meant to balance out the sentence. Ingham even found personal correspondences gently correcting those who used only single negations in their sentences.
By the time Shakespeare arrived on the scene though, the double negative was almost completely gone from the language. Not quite gone though. Celia in As You Like It complained, “I cannot go no further.”
Today, the double negative is still used. It crops up when we want to make subtle variations in meaning and context of a sentence. For example, what are the differences between these following two sentences?
·        I am convinced by his argument.
·        I am not unconvinced by his argument.
Although both sentences mean I am convinced of his argument, the second sentence with the double negative flavors the meaning, suggesting I may still have some lingering doubts.
Many of today’s grammar gurus eschew the idea of double negatives having a respected place in our English language in both a historical and modern sense.  But then, thanks to The Rolling Stones, what does one do with the following, which has so entrenched itself in the modern language:

This song has certainly created a situation where people believe it is perfectly okay to use double negatives and grammarians everywhere every time they hear the song cringe. The hairs on the back of their necks stand straight, rigid, and scared. Double negatives, though, have wormed their way into our everyday language:
·         I can’t hardly believe
·         Could care less
·         Ain’t got no
·         Don’t need no
·         Don’t have nothing
Many languages never had an issue with double negatives. Portuguese, French, Persian, Russian, Ukrainian, and Spanish are all examples of modern languages that employ double negatives, and when you run into a double negative in those particular languages, that double negative doesn’t just mean no, but it means really really no.
In other languages the double negatives cancel each other out and turn the sentence into positives: such as Latin, German, African American Vernacular English, and Cockney. Double negatives can also be found in East London and East Anglian dialects in Britain. Original Old English a double negative meant really really no.

But in today’s English, the double negative can mean the really really no as in The Rolling Stones’ “I can’t get no satisfaction,” or the double negative can mean it’s antithesis as in our earlier example, “I am not unconvinced of his argument.”
Double negatives are all about context in the English language.

So how do you handle this in your writing? Well, what is the writer saying exactly in this sentence?
I did not do nothing.
Is the writer saying he did not do anything all day except lie around on the couch watching TV, or is the writer saying he isn’t guilty of stealing office supplies? Well, you as the reader do not know because there is no context to come alongside the sentence to help explain the meaning.
As a fiction writer, double negatives can be useful. They can help characterize a person for example. One of your characters could be on trial, the prosecuting attorney grilling him, and your character shouts from the stand, “I didn’t do nothing!” What kind of assumptions do you automatically make about that character by the type of language he uses?
What if, however, you are writing something more formal? Probably should stay away from the double negatives then.

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