“Why are double negatives so bad?”
I was asked this question recently by a student, and I decided to answer it here.
Double negatives often amount to much confusion– not because of misconstrued usage like lay and lie or affect and effect, but because of misplaced meaning. Like dangling participles, double negatives create ambiguity within a statement, potentially confusing the reader.
Wait, I still don’t get it; what’s a double negative?
A double negative is where two forms of negation are used in the same sentence. When this happens, the negation in the sentence isn’t intensified or made “double-bad”– it is instead made positive. In essence, two wrongs do make a right, in the case of double negatives anyway. For those of you who know formal logic, this will sound very familiar to you. There are exceptions, but, unless your writing in a foreign language, they does not apply here: in languages like French or Spanish, the use of double negatives do mean something is super-ultra-mega-bad but, in English, it does not.
Here are a few examples of double negatives:
- I don’t not love you
- I can’t get no satisfaction
- We ain’t got no history
- We don’t need no education
In these examples, the double negative creates an opposite meaning: the two negatives cancel each other out and form a positive sense. So, “I don’t not love you” becomes “I
don’t not love you,” and “we ain’t got no history” really means “we ain’t got no history.” Aw.
Of course, double negatives can sometimes be used creatively, such as in advertising; when “Nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee” is sung, what’s being implied is that everybody likes Sara Lee. However, even in creative use, double negatives can lead to some confusion: is Pink Floyd really calling for thought control? Is Mick Jagger really asserting his ability to in fact gain satisfaction, as opposed to, well, not getting any?
As such, the double negative is, generally speaking, to be avoided– that is, unless you’re using it within a creative context. Who knows what Roger Waters was going for but, at the very least, be mindful of it yourself.