Double Negative

What Is a Double Negative?

A double negative occurs when two negative terms are used in the same sentence. For example:
  • I don't have no money.
  • I didn't see nothing.
  • I couldn't find it nowhere.
A double negative is usually created by combining the negative form of a verb (e.g., cannot, did not, have not) with a negative pronoun (e.g., nothing, nobody), a negative adverb (e.g., never, hardly), or a negative conjunction (e.g., neither/nor).

Logically, two negatives convey a positive sense. So, the double negative "I don't have no money" literally means "I have money." While some assert that a double negative with an intended negative meaning is a form of accent and, therefore, not a mistake, most of your audience would consider such usage an error. However, not every double negative is an error. Double negatives can be deployed deliberately to convey sensitivity or diplomacy:
  • I wouldn't describe you as unattractive.
  • You are not without experience.

Table of Contents

  • Examples of Double Negatives
  • What about a Triple Negative?
  • Why Double Negatives Are Important
  • (Reason 1) A double negative is usually a mistake.
  • (Reason 2) A double negative can provide a touch of diplomacy or subtlety.
  • Test Time!
double negative example

Examples of Double Negatives

The following double negatives would all be considered mistakes:
  • My daughter Chantelle wouldn't shout at nobody.
  • (A negative verb with the negative pronoun nobody)
  • Chantelle didn't never call the teacher that word.
  • (A negative verb (didn't call) with the negative adverb never)
  • She did not have neither her address nor her phone number.
  • (A negative verb with the negative conjunction neither/nor)
  • Yeah, but, no, but there's this thing you don't know nuffin' about, so don't give me no evils. (Vicky Pollard)
  • (A negative verb with the negative pronoun nuffin' [sic] and then a negative verb with the negative noun phrase no evils)
double negative example
"The secret to being a likeable grammarian is knowing when to shut up."

What about a Triple Negative?

You don't see triple negatives often, but here's a witty one:
  • I cannot say that I do not disagree with you. (Comedian Groucho Marx)
  • (If you follow it through logically, you'll find it means "I disagree with you".)
Even though two negatives make a positive, two positives do not make a negative. It can happen though. Yeah, right. There are two good reasons to care about double negatives:

(Reason 1) A double negative is usually a mistake.

A double negative that portrays a positive sense when a negative one is intended is a mistake. If it occurs in writing, it's a grammatical howler. If one occurs in speech, it can usually be dismissed as a slip of the tongue. (Well, one can. More than one can't.)
  • Russ didn't steal nothing.
  • (Logically, this means Russ stole something. In reality, readers nearly always understand the intended meaning.)
Of interest, the double-negative construction is standard in many languages. In English, however, it is an error when the resultant positive sense is unintended.

(Reason 2) A double negative can provide a touch of diplomacy or subtlety.

With the following double negatives, the resultant positive meaning is intentional.
  • He is not unattractive.
  • He is not unconvincing.
  • He is not without charm.
These double negatives are not errors. This deliberate use of the double-negative construction lets a writer take one step back from the full-blown positive version.

"He is not unattractive" is subtler than "He is attractive." As these double-negative constructions sound more factual than complimentary or unkind, they can be useful when a touch of diplomacy or subtlety is required.

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This page was written by Craig Shrives.