Double Negatives

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Little kids can be such sticklers for grammar. Have you ever been involved in a conversation like this?

Billy: What did you do with my new baseball glove?

Jimmy: I don’t know nothing about it!

Billy: Well, if you don’t know nothing about it, then you must know something!

This is more the work of a pesky sibling than a conscientious grammarian, but Billy did catch Jimmy in a double negative — the use of more negatives (like no, not, never, none) than necessary.

This error is so common we hardly notice it. You might, for instance, hear dialogue like this at a criminal trial:

Prosecutor: Did you or did you not kill Mr. Hooper?

Defendant: I swear I didn’t kill nobody!

The jury probably knows what this guy means, even though he technically just confessed to the crime (if he didn’t kill nobody, he must have killed somebody)!

There are some languages in which using multiple negatives is acceptable and used for emphasis. In English, however, only one negative is necessary or grammatically acceptable. To make a sentence negative, it is common to add the adverb not to the verb. An option is to use the contraction –n’t:

Positive: I dropped my toenail clippings in the chili.

Negative: I did not drop my toenail clippings in the chili.

Contraction:   I didn’t drop my toenail clippings in the chili.

Another way to make a sentence negative is to add words like no, nothing, never, or nobody:

Negative: I dropped no toenail clippings in the chili.

Negative: I dropped nothing in the chili.

Negative: I never dropped my toenail clippings in the chili.

Negative: Nobody dropped my toenail clippings in the chili.

Where writers (and speakers) go astray is in using more than one of these negating words in the same sentence. This is never necessary:

Wrong: I did not drop no toenail clippings in the chili.

Wrong: I never dropped no toenail clippings in the chili.

Really Wrong: Nobody didn’t never drop nothing in no chili.

Another kind of double negative involves the words hardly, scarcely, and barely. These words are more subtle in their meaning and therefore are not always recognized as negative words. But they are and don’t need any help from other negating words.

Correct: I hardly ever wash behind my ears.

Incorrect: I don’t hardly ever wash behind my ears.

Correct: He was barely able to finish his zucchini.

Incorrect: He wasn’t barely able to finish his zucchini.

Correct: The pig had scarcely enough straw to build his house.

Incorrect: The pig didn’t have scarcely enough straw to build his house.

Keep this simple rule in mind when creating negative sentences: Only one negating word is necessary.

Or maybe it would be easier to remember: Nobody doesn’t never need no more than one negating word in a sentence.

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About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

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