What is a double negative?

Posted on November 9, 2017

What is a double negative? Do you use them accidentally? Read on and find out!

What is a double negative?

A double negative is where you have two negative grammar markers in the same sentence. Consider the famous Pink Floyd song: “We don’t need no education“. The meaning of the title is “we don’t need any education”.

This double negative using “don’t” with “no” is part of what is called non-standard grammar in linguistics. You can hear this type of grammar in songs and casual situations.

Why do people use double negatives?

Double negatives are a feature of working class English. Additionally, you can hear double negatives all over the English-speaking world; in British English, American English, Australian English and so on.

Why did people start to use double negatives?

Social class was important historically, and expressing social class through language is an interesting part of English.

What is a double negative? Negatives in other languages

For several of our students it’s more intuitive to use a double negative than to use “any”. This is particularly true for students who speak a Latin language such as French or Spanish.

However, literally interpreting “I haven’t had no emails” in standard English is rather strange. It means the opposite of what it is intended to mean. It means “I haven’t had no emails, so I have some emails”.

When you can use a double negative in standard English (rarely!)

I listened to a very interesting podcast episode from The Economist some years ago. The interviewee was talking about the importance of cobalt, and said “you can’t have no cobalt at all“. He wasn’t speaking in non-standard English, and he meant that you needed at least a little bit of cobalt.

How do you make a negative in standard English?

In standard English, we use “any” with a negative to make the negative setence. So “We don’t need no education”, in standard grammar, would be “We don’t need any education”. In a professional situation, it’s more appropriate to use standard English.

Standard construction: Standard English

  • I haven’t had any emails
  • He doesn’t go on any business trips
  • They won’t do a presentation

Double negative construction: Non-Standard English

  • I haven’t had no emails
  • He doesn’t go on no business trips
  • They won’t do no presentation

Improve your English

Try this double negatives quiz so you will remember the rules next time you’re making a negative sentence.

For great English classes at your company in London get in touch today. We focus on what you want to work on, so if you’d like to brush up your grammar we can do that.

By Emily Stallard, Owner and Trainer at Orchid English

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