The central contention of this essay is that there shouldn’t be a problem with double negatives. Many languages (Eg Arabic, Spanish, French, Russian, Hungarian) use double negatives, and even in English it is only the standard variety than insists on singly negatives; double negatives occur in African-American English and all of the English Creoles.
Many people disagree with double negatives because mathematically, two negatives always cancel out to form and overall positive procedure. For example ‘minus two minus minus two equals zero’ is true in mathematical law. However, a situation in which we are one thing or another is rare – in real life, there is a whole continuum between the two extremes with infinite graduations between one state and the other.
There are several types of double negatives covered by Cheshire, one of which is typical to some dialects of English and is used for emphasis and to convey adament denial.
An’ when they be sayin’ if you good, you goin’ t’heaven, tha’s bullshit ‘cause you ain’t goin’ to no heaven, ‘cause there ain’t no heaven for you to go to
– 15 year old black youth from Harlem
This, even out of context, is clearly understandable, and certainly as a part of the conversation it was taken from there would be no room for misinterpretation – when you are face to face with somebody their opinions are made clear by tone and body language as well as by their vocabulary and grammar. ‘As for potential problems of ambiguity, these are very rare in speech the person we are communicating with is right there with us’. The example of the youth in Harlem comes from William Labov, who says that there is a ‘highly systematic structure of social and stylistic stratification’. Double negatives in English, as a non-standard form, usually come with connotations of low social status or low levels of education – this can be linked to language variation, its causes and how we view regional variation.
As far as ambiguity goes, double negatives can cause some confusion. Take ‘I didn’t give nothing to no one’, for instance. This sentence is negative, but which negatives are cancelled out? ‘Didn’t’, ‘nothing’ or ‘no one’? Does it mean ‘I gave something to everyone’? ‘I gave everything to someone’? ‘I gave something to someone’?
‘Unlike figures of mathematics, words in language have meaning, so if we cancel some of the negative we change the meaning of the sentence’. By saying this, Cheshire discounts the mathematical theory as impractical, saying that to apply rigid numerical rules to something as amorphous as language is meaningless. Yes, double negatives can cause difficulties with comprehension but to trying to reason it out with maths is illogical – we don’t apply maths to any other areas of English, so why this one?
The root may lie in the origin of the unpopularity of the double negative, and the reason people are keen to preserve this dislike. In the 18th century, when English was becoming standardised, it was fashionable to be seen as ‘cultivated’ and impersonal, which made use of the pronoun ‘one’ popular as it removed the speaker from implicating him or herself in their statement. The same went for the intensifying adverbs ‘very’ and ‘rather’. ‘Rather’ experienced heavier use because it was impersonal and lacked emphasis. Therefore, the emphatic denial portrayed by double negatives suffered too – it was relegated to paupers and people of low social status, and this prejudice is still maintained today.
Some people dislike use of the negative to moderate a negative adjective, such as ‘not unkind’ or ‘not untrue’, saying that the double negative makes the ‘not un-’ part of the phrase meaningless. George Orwell’s suggested ‘cure’ for people who use that type of double negative was that they should, whenever tempted by the lure of the double negative, think of this phrase: ‘A not unblack dog chased a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field’. This is an extreme example but you can see where he’s coming from – to use a double negative in this situation seems deliberately pedantic.
Returning to maths, people like Orwell could argue that descriptions like ‘not unkind’ are rendered invalid because there are only two states – kind and unkind – and to not be one is to be the other. Following this chain of thought, we can liken these two states to programming computers. Because computers cannot yet interpret anything more complex than ‘on’ and ‘off’, there are two states and nothing in between exists.
In real life this can be thought of as ‘dead’ and ‘alive’, two states that are polar opposites and between which (without venturing into the realm of zombies) there shouldn’t be and continuum – you are either dead or alive, not somewhere in the middle. However, figurative language invents impossible concepts like ‘half dead’ and ‘more dead than alive’. Computers do not understand this, but humans do – it is patronising to say that ambiguity is caused when phrases like ‘not unfriendly’ are used, or that they are dishonest.
There is a whole range of possibilities between ‘friendly’ and ‘unfriendly’ – how can we deny ‘not unfriendly’ as a description when we allow ‘very friendly’ or ‘not friendly at all’? As Cheshire puts it, we have ‘needs, as human beings, to go beyond simple two-way distinctions’. By saying this she presents herself as a shining beacon of logic in a sea of prescriptivist propaganda, a wise move seeing as she is representing positively that most hated archenemy, the double negative, and she needs to make herself sound credible if people are going to pay her any attention.
People – perhaps unreasonably – hate double negatives. Listeners of the Radio 4 series English Now said that double negatives ‘made their blood boil’, ‘gave them a pain in the ear’, ‘made them shudder’ and ‘appalled’ them. These strong reactions could be used to challenge the prescriptivist debate and show that although everyone has personal standards and bugbears regarding language, no forms are more ‘correct’ or ‘better’ than others.
By quoting these reactions Cheshire presents herself as calm and reasonable when compared to the unbridled hatred of those quoted. I’m not keen on double negatives myself, but I can see that ‘made my their blood boil’ is a bit extreme, even for Radio 4 listeners. It’s just a dialect feature! Harmless! (Or is it a conspiracy of the unwashed masses to usurp the hegemony of the prescriptivist, starting by destroying their carefully protected and perfectly regimented ‘Standard English’ and finishing with the storming of Buckingham Palace?). Prescriptivism is weird.