Double Negatives

Posted: March 28th, 2014, 8:58 am   By: brittany.corners

“Negative, Ghost Rider, the pattern is full.”—Air traffic control, foolishly trying to keep Maverick from doing his thing

This week, we don’t not discuss double negatives.

We’ve all said things we didn’t mean to say. Remember the time you told your significant other that you miss the sweet, sultry embrace of your ex? What about when you blurted to your mother that her cooking tastes like a sebaceous cyst? Don’t forget that awkward moment when you thoughtlessly said during a job interview that you own “Baby Geniuses” on Blu-ray.

It’s OK—you’re not alone. Each one of us has put a crusty foot into an unwitting mouth. In this world of garish gaffes and blubbering blunders, double negatives are often the best way to say exactly what you don’t mean to say.

Double negatives involve two negatives in one sentence. The resultant problem boils down to mathematical logic: two negatives make a positive. When you negate something twice, you don’t negate it at all. Sometimes you can use double negatives to convey an intended meaning, but you need to be very careful. Consider the following examples:

  • Ex) We don’t need Dennis Rodman doing no diplomacy in the Hermit Kingdom.
    • [Sounds like we actually do need Dennis doing some diplomacy.]
  • Ex) Netflix-loving Myron doesn’t want nothing, since he got a year of free DVD service.
    • [It says Myron does indeed want something.]
  • Ex) The Japanese legislator won’t not wear his sweet Mexican wrestling mask to work.
    • [This double negative makes sense, because he won’t stop wearing the mask]

Finally, it’s also important to know that double negatives don’t always entail the use of words like “no” or “not.” For example, adverbs like “scarcely” and “hardly” are already negative—so adding another negative usually doesn’t make sense. As much as it pains me to admit, the Replacements committed this mistake with the lovely song “Can’t Hardly Wait.”

In the end, it’s best to avoid double negatives altogether, unless you don’t want people having no problems interpreting your writing.