A double negative occurs when two forms of negation are used in the same sentence. In some languages (or varieties of a language,) negative forms are consistently used throughout the sentence to express a single negation. In other languages, a double negative is used to negate a negation, and therefore, it resolves to a positive. In the former case, triple and quadruple negation can also be seen, which leads to the terms multiple negation or negative concord.
Although they are not used in Standard English, double negatives are used in various American English dialects, including Southern American English, African American Vernacular English, and most British regional dialects, most notably the East London (Cockney) and East Anglian dialects. This is similar to negative concord found in other languages, as described later in this article. Often double negatives are considered to be incorrect grammatial usages; however, dialects which utilize double negatives do so consistently and follow a different set of descriptive linguistic rules.
or the "stinking badges" from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
In another Simpsons episode ("Pranksta Rap"), Prinicpal Skinner argues with a rap star over the grammarical correctness of double negatives:
A classic example of a double negative used by a well-educated man in the 1600s was Oliver Cromwell's letter, dated July 5, 1644, to his brother-in-law, Valentine Walton, informing him of the death of Walton's son at the battle of Marston Moor, quoting the boy's last words:
A little after, he said one thing lay upon his spirit. I asked him what it was. He told me it was that God had not suffered him to be no more the executioner of His enemies.
This particular letter of Cromwell's has often been reprinted, but with the "not ... no" double negative amended to read "not ... any".
In more recent times, more publicised examples of double negatives appear in EastEnders, particularly with the character Dot Branning, who sometimes uses triple negatives as well (e.g. 'I ain't never 'eard of no licence). However, this is an obvious example of Estuary English or Mockney, as June Brown (who plays her) speaks with a much more posh accent.
A litotes is a rhetorical device which uses double negation to emphasise a statement. By denying its opposite, the double negation cancels itself out and resolves to a positive. The effect of this can differ depending on context.
For instance, "I don't disagree" could be said to mean "I certainly agree" if stated in an affirmative manner. However, if stated in a cautious manner, "I don't disagree" can also be used to mean "You may be right, although I am not sure," or "There is no mistake in what you say, but there is more to it than that."
Similarly, the phrase "Mr. Jones was not incompetent" may be used to mean either "Mr. Jones was very competent" or "Mr. Jones was competent, but not brilliantly so."
This device can also be used to humorous effect; for example, in the TV show The Simpsons, Homer Simpson says in one episode ("Missionary: Impossible"), "I'm not not licking toads", humorously conveying to the audience that he had indeed been licking toads.
In Slovenian, double negation is the correct form and sometimes causes confusion as to whether the positive or the negative is meant by a given (ambiguous) sentence. The English sentence 'I don't know anyone' translates colloquially to Ne poznam nikogar (I don't know nobody). A literal translation of the English sentence, 'I don't know anyone' (Ne poznam kogarkoli) has the connotation 'I don't know just anyone' (that is, I know someone important or special). Peculiarly, the English 'Nobody knows one another' becomes 'Nihče ne pozna nikogar' (No one doesn't know no one) in Slovenian. In contrast, Church Slavonic language allows only single negation (however, many norms of Church Slavonic are artificial, as it is not a spoken language).
An example of commonly used triple negatives in Czech is Nikdo nic nevyhrál (Nobody won anything), which means Nobody didn't win nothing when translated literally. In Russian, the following sentence with 6 negations is grammatically correct: Неужели никто нигде никогда не видел ничего подобного? ('Is it possible that no one has ever seen anything like that anywhere?'). Another example, from a popular song, is Ничего не слышу, ничего не вижу, ничего не знаю, ничего никому не скажу, meaning 'I hear nothing, I see nothing, I know nothing, I won't tell anything to anybody'. In Polish, five negations occur in the sentence Czy to możliwe, że nikt nigdy nikogo nigdzie nie widział? ('Is it possible that no one has ever seen anything like that anywhere?'). The negative answer for this question has six negations: to niemożliwe, że nikt nigdzie nigdy nikogo nie widział.
The double negative is used in any case that pronouns are used with a negative construction, and is considered grammatically correct. Nie znam nikogo (literally I do not know nobody) means 'I don't know anybody; nic nie mam (literally I do not have nothing) means 'I have nothing'. This is quite a philosophical question, whether somebody can have nothing. In Polish, not nothing is everything or something is not nothing and not everything is expressed as coś to nic i wszystko. The double negation may be better understood as an answer to a negative question:
If it looks confusing, it's not so for a native speaker, and it is consistent with de Morgano logic. In fact, "nie ino and tak ino" are not used by native speakers of modern Polish — "ino" was replaced by "tylko". The English triple form of the words nay no not may have an IE origin.
Double negation is not found in the standard West Germanic languages except for Afrikaans where it is mandatory. For example: Hy kan nie Afrikaans praat nie. (literally 'he cannot Afrikaans speak not'). Both French and San origins have been suggested for double negation in Afrikaans. While double negation is still found in Low Franconian dialects in West-Flanders and in some 'isolated' villages in the center of the Netherlands (i.e. Garderen), it takes a different form, which is not found in Afrikaans (ie. ikne wil dat nie doen - I not will that not do). In Flemish dialectical speech though there are still some widely used expressions like nooit niet (literally: 'never not' : used instead of just nooit 'never'). The -ne was the Old Franconian way to negate, but it is suggested that since it became highly non-voiced 'nie' or 'niet' was needed to complement the -ne. With time the -ne disappeared in most Low Franconian ("Dutch") dialects. Non-standard varieties of Germanic languages all use them. Here are German language examples:
Das macht kein Mensch nicht. (literally: "That does no man not.") Example of an archaic form that resolves to a negative but is no longer understood as: "No man does that."
Ich kenne nicht niemanden. (literally: "I know not nobody.") Modern usage, easily understood as: "It is not true that I don't know anybody."
And in English:
I ain't done nothing (literally: "I have not done anything")
The double negative construction has been fully grammaticalized in standard Afrikaans (due to its use in many indigenous languages in that area) and its proper use follows a set of fairly complex rules as the examples below (provided by Bruce Donaldson) show:
Ek het nie geweet dat hy sou kom nie = Eng. I didn't know that he would be coming.
Ek het geweet dat hy nie sou kom nie = Eng. I knew that he wouldn't be coming.
Ek het nie geweet dat hy nie sou kom nie = Eng. I didn't know that he wouldn't be coming.
Hy sal nie kom nie, want hy is siek = Eng. He won't be coming because he is sick.
''Dis (=Dit is) nie so moeilik om Afrikaans te leer nie = Eng. It's not so difficult to learn Afrikaans.
Double negatives are standard in Romance languages. Complex negation is generally expressed by placing a negation adverb (word for "not": ne in French, no in Spanish and Catalan, non in Italian, não in Portuguese, nu in Romanian) before the verb and zero or more negative adverbs or pronouns elsewhere to indicate what kind of negation is being made. In standard French, unlike the others, simple negation is commonly used with a second negative particle, pas. In Catalan the second negative particle pas appears in emphatic contexts.
Pas (from Latin passus), the word for "step", was originally used for emphasis, e.g., Fr. Je ne marche pas and Cat. No camino pas originally meant "I won't go a step". The usage of the word later extended to serve as a negative particle, to the point that nowadays, in colloquial speech, ne is often left out, while pas serves as the only negating element. In Catalan, however, pas is used in some dialects to mark that a negative sentence contradicts what was expected, although in the Northern Catalan dialect pas is the only negative adverb while no is not used. Conversely, in standard Occitan, pas is the only particle used to negate sentences and non is only used as an answer to questions.
The correlative negative words in Spanish and Italian are used only in negative sentences (e.g. ningún "none", a positive sentence uses algún "some") whereas some French, Catalan and Occitan negative words are the same as positive words. This sometimes leads to confusion for non-native speakers. For example, in French personne can mean "person" or "nobody," plus can mean both "more" and "[not] anymore", and in Catalan res can mean both "nothing" and "anything", while enlloc can mean both "nowhere" or "anywhere". (However, in Catalan such positive uses are most frequently found on interrogative or conditional sentences and are rare in affirmative statements.)
This is compounded by the fact that colloquial French has a strong tendency to drop the particle ne, keeping only pas.
Since there are many Catalan negative particles which are in fact no plus an affirmative particle, there is a tendency to add no to particles which can't be affirmative in any context, for example Jo tampoc no l'he vista (literally "I neither not her have seen"; I haven't see her either"). Those double negations are, however, correct, and in fact are encouraged by most teachers, despite the fact that some grammars consider both constructions as valid. The usage of this kind of double negation is decreasing, perhaps due to Spanish influence or perhaps due to the birth of a new natural tendency to drop particles similar to the one found in French.
In colloquial Brazilian Portuguese, an extra negative particle can often be found in apposition at the end of a double negative sentence. For example, Não vi nada, não translates literally to "I didn't see nothing, no" (idiomatic translation: "Oh no, I didn't see anything"), or Não chamamos ninguém, não, literally "We didn't call nobody, no" (idiomatic translation: "Oh no, we didn't call anybody"). The same phenomenon is also standard practice in Romanian, with the example Nu văd nimic. translating literally to "I don't see nothing." (idiomatic translation: "I don't see anything.").
The above applies only when the negatives all refer to the same word or expression in a clause, so in
all the negatives operate independently of each other.
In Modern Greek there are two negations. The most common is the double negation:
The single negation is rare and generally conservative:
Sometimes it is possible to avoid double negatives by choosing words that are not negatives, but which convey a similar meaning. In the following example "איש" ("man") functions much like French "personne": לא דיברתי עם איש > Not (I)spoke with man > I didn't speak to a man > I didn't speak to anyone.
The opposite view: The above assumes that the words שום and אף express negation. Checking in a dictionary as well as recalling expressions in which these words are not used as negations may show that actually in Hebrew there are no correct double negatives, at least not with the above examples.
The word שום means anything. The word אף means: also, too. Similar mistakes are made with additional words, not mentioned above. The word כלום means something, anything, a little of. The word מאומה means something.
To sum up: Words used with negations are often confused as being negations.