John Larrysson Column: Double Negatives

Sometimes English speakers use two negative words, called a double negative, in a sentence. However English teachers teach that this structure is an error... What is really going on? Sometimes two negative words are used for emphasis.



I didn't steal nothing. ( = I didn't steal anything.)



He never talked with nobody. ( = He didn't talk with anybody.)


This grammar question has serious real world consequences. Think about this situation: An innocent man is arrested by the police. He is suspected of stealing. He says to the police officer, "I didn't steal nothing." The police officer then tells the court that the suspect confessed to stealing something.

[audio 1]

For hundreds of years, in English, a double negative was used for emphasis. However today it can also be used to make a positive statement as well. The two ways to use a double negative are like maths. The old grammar is like addition and the new grammar is like multiplication.

The old grammar:


(-1) + (-1) = -2



I did not not steal it. = I did not steal it.


The new grammar:


(-1) x (-1) = 1



I did not not steal it. = I stole it.


The police officer used the new grammar and the innocent man, who was sent to jail for robbery, used the old grammar. While double negatives are no longer standard English they are still used in many local dialects, especially in the UK. Should this structure be called an error?

[audio 2]

There is a way that double negatives are used correctly. They can be used to offer a slightly different subtle implied meaning rather than the simple positive meaning. A double negative used this way creates a qualified positive statement. The statement is positive, but with a condition that is not directly said.


It is not unhealthy to drink beer instead of whiskey. (= Drinking less alcohol is healthier.)


The simple positive statement is wrong. The writer does not mean it is healthy to drink beer. By saying "not unhealthy" the writer wants to emphasise that drinking too much beer is also unhealthy. However since it has less alcohol it is not as bad as drinking too much whiskey.

[audio 3]


I don't disagree with what he says. (= I do agree with what he says, but not entirely.)


The use of don't together with disagree implies that the speaker is still partly unconvinced by what he was told. The double negative creates an implied meaning that is not the same as the simple positive statement. The sentence does not mean, "I (do) agree with what he says."

Consider these examples:



I wouldn't say no. / I would not say no.


It does not mean:


I would say yes.


It really means:


If asked I would say yes.




She is not unattractive.


It does not mean:


She is attractive.



She is ugly.


It really means:


I am not going to be so rude as to say she is ugly, but she is.




That doesn't mean we can't go hiking.


It does not mean:


We can go hiking.


It really means:


Something has happened to make going less likely. (Maybe it is raining.) However the suggestion made is that you can go hiking anyway (... if you don't mind getting wet).


[audio 4]

Teaching that a double negative is an error is not strictly correct. However it is easy and simple to say it is an error. Explaining about older grammar and subtle implied meanings is difficult. The structure is used to offer another meaning where some information is implied. However sometimes it can create confusion. It is best avoided, unless you want to imply a subtle extra meaning.

[audio 5]

by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.