Confused man thnking about double negatives and learning English with Stephen

Learning Strategies: Double negatives

This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast on dealing with double negatives in English.

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Hello and welcome to English with Stephen. The podcast that gives you everything you need to learn English in 10 minutes.

Today’s episode is inspired by Darragh Murphy, a friend of mine who also lives in Curitiba, in the south of Brazil. He comes from Ireland, and I, as you may know, come from the UK, but with strong Irish routes. We both have sons of about the same age and both the boys speak English and Portuguese.

Darragh and I were having a chat about the way our sons speak English, and how it has been influenced by Portuguese, which is their strongest or main language. One of the things we talked about was their insistence on using double negatives and how this is different to standard English, which dislikes double negatives.

Double negatives are not just a problem for the children of immigrants to Brazil. It is an issue that comes up again and again with some of my students. So, I thought I could talk about double negatives, what they are, and what you can do about them.

After this…

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And now, to the double negative.

If you look at a traditional grammar book for standard English, whether it is British or American English, you will find that double negatives are not allowed.

A double negative is something like this…

“I don’t want no more pizza.”

If you analyse that sentence you have two negative bits. First, we have the negative verb “don’t want”, and then we get the negative before the noun as in “no more pizza”.

Normally, the grammar books will tell you that the “correct” structure should be either “I don’t want any more pizza,” or “I want no more pizza.” In both of these examples, we only have one negative.

The reason given for this is that in maths, two negatives equals a positive. If we follow this logic, then the original sentence “I don’t want no more pizza,” means I actually do want some pizza.

Can you see why?

If we break it down, you get the first part, which, as we’ve mentioned, is “I don’t want”.

We can continue this sentence in many ways. For example, “I don’t want water.” Water is the thing I do not want.

Or “I don’t want to be here.” “Be here” is the thing I do not want.

So if we say “I don’t want no more pizza”, “no more pizza” is the thing we don’t want. Which means I do want more pizza.

It’s all a bit confusing, so in in standard English we just keep away from double negatives.

However, language does not follow logic. You can never use a logical argument for why something is or is not correct in any language, because there are always examples of when language is not logical.

Many languages are not worried about this double negative idea. I have already mentioned how Portuguese, the language of my son and his friend, uses double negatives all the time. Likewise, Spanish and French don’t just allow double negatives, they insist on double negatives. I believe most Slavic languages demand that you negate every aspect of a phrase. I am sure there are many others that are not obsessed with this idea.

In fact, in Old and Middle English, there was no problem using double negatives. It is only in the 1600s, when the first English grammar books were being produced, that we see people suddenly decide that double negatives are a “bad thing”.

I have talked before about how English grammar is wrong, and it is mostly wrong because of the first grammar books that were written in the 15 and 1600s. I will post a link to this episode in the transcript on my site

But it is not just other languages or Old English that used double negatives. Modern English uses it a lot.

It is a common part of African American English in the United Sates. Double negatives are often used to add extra emphasis to the negative idea. If you listen to R ‘n B, rap, pop or rock music form the last 80 years, you will hear many examples of double negatives. In fact, Jimi Hendrix even uses a triple negative at one point in his song Hey Joe.

“Ain’t no hangman gonna put no rope around me.”

Some people have this racist idea that African American English is not “real” or “correct” English. Nothing could be further from the truth. And anyway, it is not just African American English. It is also common in many dialects around the UK.

I can remember when I was a kid and I did something wrong. My aunt asked me what had happened and I said “I ain’t done nothing.”

“Aint’ is a common abbreviation for “have not” or “am not” or “is not” or “are not”.

My aunt got even madder at my use of “aint’ and a double negative than at whatever the thing was that I still think I didn’t do.

So what does this all mean for English learners? If many dialects use double negatives, surely it is ok for students to use them?

Well, yes it is! I usually don’t correct my students if they use a double negative. Everyone, and I mean everyone, is going to understand them. They will be understood because of the context. They will be understood because it is so common in non-standard English. They will be understood because only grammar pedants insist on not using a double negative.

I can only think of two types of student who I would correct if they used a double negative. The first type is the student who is preparing for an exam. Exams generally require candidates to write in standard English, so I would always encourage my students not to use a double negative.

Similarly, if a student’s goal was to write in clear English, for example academic English or legal English, then again I would encourage them not to use a double negative.

In both of these examples, the need for precise and clear English means there is no space for the potential ambiguity that could come from using a double negative.

So, my advice for you if you are struggling with double negatives is don’t. Really, don’t struggle. Forget about them. They really are not all that important. If you are doing an exam or writing texts that need to be super-accurate, then pay attention. But other than those two occasions, don’t worry about not using your double negatives right.

How about you? Does your language use double negatives or something similar? Do you worry about using double negatives in your English? You can let me know on my site Alternatively, you can find me on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter. I would love to hear from you and I guarantee I will answer any messages or comments you might have.

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Thanks for listening. I hope to speak to you again next week.

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