Thursday, August 15, 2013

"Double" Negatives

Last week at work someone remarked that something was possible "only if you're the kind of person who thinks a double negative is a positive."

This drew a response of:
But it often is! What about things like, "I can't not follow her wishes"; or the common dialogue tag, "he said, not unkindly"; or a dialogue like, Q: "Are you not looking forward to it?" A: "I'm not not looking forward to it, it's just that I could use some more time."

Or do you mean the type of person who believes a double negative is always a positive?
Original Poster responded to that:
Wow, talk about illustrating the point. Yes, exactly; I meant "always a positive." Specifically, I mean the type of person who insists "You ain't seen nothin' yet" means "you have seen Something already."
I'd like to address those (and one more) so-called "double negatives".

They aren't the same thing. In fact, there are three types of constructions in English where you are likely to find more than one negative particle.

The first is a genuine double negative - the kind cited by the responder. "Not follow" is being negated: can't not follow = must follow. "unkindly" is being negated: not unkindly = somewhat kindly. Another example: "I don't never go to chuch, I go every week", where "never go to church" is being negated. Many of these are rhetorical devices (today's Comics Curmudgeon title is another example: Do I want to see Gil terribly injured? Let’s say I don’t not want to see it) and none of them are simply the positive: "I can follow" isn't quite the same as "can't not follow", and saying something "not unkindly" isn't saying it kindly. Others are contradictions - the rejection of "you never go to church" rather than an assertion of attendance. But they are all examples of the oft-cited "two negatives make a positive" rule. (Rhetorically, this is called litotes.)

The second set of examples, however, are different. In a sentence like "You ain't seen nothin' yet" the "not" of "ain't" is not negating the "nothing"; it's not the same construction as "you haven't not seen". Some languages, such as Russian, the primary negation in such a sentence is a different particle (ne) than the others (ni), but in Romance languages they're the same one. This is called, not double negation, but "negative concord". The negatives reinforce each other, and in many languages they are in fact required.

Modern Standard English doesn't use negative concord (though many non-Standard dialects do). Instead, it uses "negative polarity" - that is, forms of pronouns or adverbs that are not used with positive verbs but which are not overtly negative themselves. (These forms are also triggered by non-overtly negative verbs such as "doubt" or "stop", and adverbs such as "hardly (ever)". That is, you say "You haven't seen anything yet", or "he hardly ever says anything mean to anyone" or "don't say anything" or "they don't have any money". The positive forms of those sentences is not "You have seen anything" or "he says anything mean to anyone" or "say anything" or "they have any money", because those words must be in negative constructions.

Note, however, that here the "two negatives make a positive" rule can't be held to apply. If it did, then Prissy's "I don't know nothin' about birthin' no babies!" or "I ain't never seen nothing like that" would have to be acceptable: two negatives make a positive, but three are still negative. (Please note: I am not saying these sentences are acceptable, well-formed Standard English; I am saying the so-called reason that "double negatives" are bad has no actual application to the case. And if there actually does exist a person who really believes these are positive statements, all I can say is that they must be in perpetual state of annoyed confusion...)

There is a third construction in English that can support more than one negative. That's one which I have only rarely heard stigmatized, but here are two examples. The first refers to an op-ed written by Dick Cavett on April 5, 2007, for the NY Times, in which he said:
And then there's, "If we announce a departure date, the enemy will just hunker down until we leave." Isn’t that what most of Iraq’s "army" also will do? (They're referred to by our troops as the "Keystone Kops." Except the Kops showed up for work.)

Doesn't never announcing a date allow them to return to their hammocks and let G.I. Joe continue to absorb the bullets?
One of the commenters acerbically took Cavett to task:
For one so usually careful about English usage, I am surprised to see Mr. Cavett using the double negative in the third paragraph of the press conference/gutsy reporter portion of his article.

Shouldn't it have read "Never announcing a date allows them to return . ." rather than the awkward "Doesn't never announcing . . .", equivalent to saying "Does not never"?

Can Cavett really defend using "Doesn’t never"?
Cavett could, I'm sure, though I don't know if he did. Another such example was in a book I read last week, where a reporter told the narrator, "Don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about." "Does your editor know you use double negatives?" is the response, and I might have thought she was just dodging the question if she hadn't brought it up several times, concluding that the reporter might be smart despite the bad grammar.

That second one is an egregious misidentification. The Cavett quote at least strings the negatives together (doesn't never). But in both cases the two negatives not only don't interact, they aren't even in the same clause.

The Cavett question is in the form "Doesn't X allow Y?" It so happens that in his question X is negative, but the "doesn't" has no control over that, nor any interaction with it. It could be paraphrased to "X allows Y, doesn't it?" and I'm guessing that this wording wouldn't have drawn the commenter's attention. And the distinctive intonation of such a question would be very different from a "doesn't never allow it, does it?" question.

The book example is just bizarre. The narrator didn't correct the reporter, as the commenter tried to do, though offering a much weaker fomula than Cavett's rhetorical question. And I can't even imagine what alternative could be used - only a disguised negative like "Stop pretending" wouldn't distort the meaning. I hesitate to call either of these any kind of "double" negative at all.

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5 Comments:

At 8:45 PM, August 15, 2013 Anonymous Kathie had this to say...

Portuguese uses "negative concord" a lot, for emphasis -- which led me to wonder, when I read that (just before WW II, IIRC) philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine had learned Portuguese in order to write a logic textbook in that language for Brazilian students, how on earth he ever handled the "two negatives make a positive" aspect of Boolean logic.

As to the churl (the nicest word I can think of that applies) who attacked Cavett's use of "Doesn't never announcing a date allow them to...," that person probably also would endorse Churchill's sarcastic "up with which I will not put" construction. Harrumph!

 
At 9:11 PM, August 15, 2013 Blogger The Ridger, FCD had this to say...

Russian (like all Slavic languages) requires negative concord. You can say "I will not tell someone" but it means a particular someone, not anyone. To mean "I will not tell anyone" you must say "I will not tell no-one."

 
At 4:00 PM, August 18, 2013 Anonymous Kathie had this to say...

How would the Russian language solve the quandary of explaining that a double negative equals a positive in logic?

 
At 7:12 PM, August 18, 2013 Blogger The Ridger, FCD had this to say...

Since не не does cancel, they'd just use those particles.

But I expect - just like other languages with negative concord (Portuguese) - they just don't think language is math. Or logic.

 
At 8:50 PM, August 18, 2013 Anonymous Kathie had this to say...

...which returns us full-circle to how Quine managed to write a Brazilian logic textbook explaining all that, when the Portuguese-language uses double negatives for emphasis. I've sent out a BOLO for our favorite Lusophone math professor/novelist to explain it to us.

 

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