In this week's episode of Everyday Grammar, we're going to talk about two common types of double negatives. A double negative is when you use two negative words in the same clause of a sentence.
Let's take a real-world example. In 2012, President Obama spoke at United Nations about the Iran nuclear issue.
"America wants to resolve this issue through diplomacy, and we believe that there is still time and space to do so. But that time is not unlimited."
What did the president mean when he said "not unlimited?" Mr. Obama's double negative statement confused many people.
English teachers do not like double negatives because they can be confusing and illogical. Starting in elementary school, teachers tell students to avoid them. But many native English speakers still use double negatives.
There are two types of double negatives.
The first kind of double negative is when two negative words form a positive statement. When President Obama said, "Time is not unlimited," the negative "not" and the negative prefix "un" cancel each other out. What Mr. Obama meant is that time is limited for Iran. Politicians, lawyers, and diplomats sometimes use this type of double negative in sensitive situations.
The second type of double negative is when two negatives form a stronger negative. For example, "I don't know nothing." When you place a verb between two negative words, the result is usually a stronger negative. But, if you told an English teacher, "I don't know nothing," the teacher would probably correct you with, "I don't know anything." This kind of double negative is taboo in professional and academic situations. Some people see it as a sign of being poorly educated.
But English speakers have been using double negatives for centuries. The first English translation of the Bible by King James used double negatives. William Shakespeare even used a triple negative in his play Richard III. Shakespeare wrote, "I never was nor never will be." Was Shakespeare wrong?
It was Robert Lowth who decided the double negative had no place in English grammar. Robert Lowth was a leader in the Church of England. In 1762, he wrote a book called A Short Introduction to English Grammar. Mr. Lowth proposed many restrictions on English grammar, many of them inspired by Latin. Over the years, his rules became the standard for teaching grammar all over the English-speaking world.
But the double negative is alive and well, especially in informal speech. In fact, some of the richness of the English language comes from ignoring the rules. Listen for the double negative in the song "Satisfaction" by the Rolling Stones.
"I can't get no satisfaction
I can't get no satisfaction
‘Cause I try and I try..."
Would the song have the same effect if Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger had said, "I cannot get any satisfaction"?
And surely Robert Lowth would not approve of pop star Rihanna's use of the double negative in her song called "Numb".
"I don't care, can't tell me nothing"
The double negative is just one example of the difference between how English is taught in school and how it is sometimes spoken.
So next time you get frustrated with English grammar, don't blame your teacher. Blame Robert Lowth.
I'm Jonathan Evans.