Friday, December 3, 2010

Writing Tip : Double negatives needn't be no sin

Double negatives needn't be no sin 


This article argues that double negatives can be an acceptable usage.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and contradict most of the books ever written on the subject of grammar. (Who said I wasn't brave?) Traditional advice has always been not to use double negatives. For example, sentences such as these are traditionally frowned on:
  • I didn't do nothing!
  • Don't give me no lip!
  • There ain't no such thing.
Detractors will argue that such sentences involve a contradiction of the intended meaning. In the first sentence, if the speaker didn't do nothing then he or she must have done something. In the second sentence, the speaker seems to be asking to be given some lip. In the third sentence, the speaker is arguing that there is such a thing.
My position is that while these criticisms are pedantically true, there's really no likelihood that anyone would misunderstand the intended meaning. If a mother turns to her child and snaps "Don't give me no lip!", it would take a particularly slow-witted child to assume that she was inviting a dispute. (And certainly even the dullest child wouldn't make that particular mistake twice!)
Far from being misunderstood, in these cases a double negative actually makes the intended meaning clearer by being more emphatic. For example, consider these sentences:
  • I didn't do it!
  • I didn't do nothing!
To me, the second one seems like a stronger, more emphatic denial by virtue of having two negative words (didn't and nothing), rather than just one (didn't). The speaker might not be more believable, but he or she does sound more emphatic.
So even though a literal interpretation of a double negative may contradict the speaker's intended meaning, it's unlikely to be ambiguous in context. On the contrary, the meaning is probably made clearer: doubly so.
In closing, I should note that while double negatives can be quite acceptable in casual speech, they are usually inappropriate in more formal settings such as business.

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