Double negatives are the use of two negatives in one clause. In most cases, the double negation is an attempt to place emphasis on the negative portion of the clause; however, in literal terms, it actually creates a positive statement. Just like in mathematical equations, two negatives equal a positive. This often results in the failure of your intended meaning coming through to readers. Double negatives are used in colloquial language (informal language used in casual situations) and should always stay clear of any formal writing. “Never,” “no,” “none,” “not” and “nowhere” are common negatives that are used when double negatives are created. Consider the following examples.
Example 1: Barb doesn’t want no help from you.
“Doesn’t” and “no” create a double negative. The implied meaning is that Bard doesn’t want any help. The literal meaning is that Barb does want help from you. When it is constructed with the double negation, there is no logical explanation for the sentence, making it invalid.
Example 2: Jodi never said she saw nothing.
“Never” and “nothing” create a double negative. The implied meaning is that Jodi never saw anything. The literal meaning is that Jodi saw something.
In addition to negative words, some adverbs carry a negative connotation. Some of these include “barely,” “hardly” and “scarcely.” The same principle of two negatives creating a positive applies when adverbs like these are used. Consider the following example:
Example 3: The dancer can’t hardly wait for the big performance.
“Can’t” and “hardly” create a double negative because “hardly” has a negative slant. The implied meaning is that the dancer can hardly wait for the big performance. The literal meaning is that the dancer can wait for the big performance.
There is an exception to the avoidance of double negatives in formal writing. When you are writing rhetorically (informing, persuading or motivating your readers in a particular way for specific situations), the use of negative prefixes and another negative is acceptable. These double-negative constructions are called “litotes.” They are most often used to understate an idea through the denial of the opposite, which is created by the double negative. “In,” “non” and “un” are negative prefixes. Consider the following examples:
Example 4: Vanessa was not unintelligent.
The use of “not” and the prefix “un” creates an understatement regarding Vanessa’s intelligence. Both the literal and the implied meaning is that Vanessa is intelligent, probably very intelligent.
Example 5: Kelly’s argument was clearly not nonsensical.
The use of “not” and the prefix “non” creates an understatement about Kelly’s argument making complete sense. The literal and implied meanings are the same: Kelly’s argument makes complete sense.
Example 6: Ian’s income is not insignificant.
The use of “not” and the prefix “in” creates an understatement over the level of Ian’s income. That Ian’s income is significant is both the literal and the implied meaning.
The thing to remember is that litotes and grammatically incorrect double negatives both create double negation. With litotes however, the double negatives mean exactly what you intend them to mean; they just put more emphasis on the positive you are implying.
When a double negative is grammatically incorrect, it is a relatively easy fix. In most cases, the second negative is replaced with “any” or a word with “any” as part of its construction. In the case of negative adverbs, the first negation is usually removed. Consider the following corrections of two of the above examples:
Revisiting Example 2:
Revisiting Example 3:
Correcting the double negatives to make both your implied and actual meaning match provides more clarity to your words and keeps your writing grammatically correct. In addition, understanding how to correctly use double negatives in litotes is an excellent way to create an understatement for a rhetorical effect. Understanding the difference is important to ensure your words pack the power and meaning you intend them to have.