Today’s lesson will by necessity touch on one of several pet peeves of mine. I will try to keep it free of impassioned ranting.
Negatives are a necessity in any language. As much as we’d love to always emphasize the positive, sometimes you just have to say no, rebut a statement, or say what something isn’t. As words, negatives are useful tools, if you understand how to use them.
Double negatives crop up a lot in informal speech. Sometimes this is done by accident. Sometimes the person does it to emphasize a point, and yet others, it is used to hide the speaker’s true meaning. Because of the prevalence in the vernacular, the use of double negatives leads to a lot of common grammatical errors.
What is a double negative, and why are they a problem?
When someone uses two negative words within the same sentence, they’ve used a double negative. “I can’t get no satisfaction,” is an example from a classic rock song by the same name. In this case both “can’t” and “no” are negative words. A couple of other examples of double or even triple negatives I’ve heard over the years are: “You don’t need no college education to understand the Bible,” and “Don’t pay me no nevermind.”
The use of this pattern is very prevalent in the area where I live. I know some of you might be thinking that’s because “Southerners are ignorant,” but I don’t think that’s the case. When you look at many, if not all, of the “peculiarities” of Southern U.S. English, you begin to notice a pattern. Those same verbal differences that paint speakers from the southeast as ignorant were grammatically correct a few centuries back. Our vernacular has simply been slower to evolve because of a lower influx of people speaking different dialects. When you take into consideration many of the people who settled the southeast were from poor, farming regions that also experienced little influx, and it becomes easy to see why some grammatical patterns in the local vernacular throw back to rules from Middle or even Old English.
The use of double negatives, more properly termed negative concord, was a part of the structure of Old English and the Germanic languages that birthed it. The influence of Latin derived languages has lessened the prevalence of negative concord in both English and German over the centuries. The extent to which these influences affected the local vernacular are directly correlated to how connected or isolated the area is.
Basically, the more people come and go from your area, the more and faster the speech patterns, slang, and accent will change. The fewer people move into or trade with an area, the less and slower speech patterns, slang, and accent will change. This is why people who grew up and live in or around Huntsville, AL sound drastically different from individuals who have lived all their lives in more rural, isolated areas despite having the same level of education. Huntsville has experienced a massive influx of scientists, engineers, and manufacturers from other states and countries over the last several decades, which has caused a monumental shift in the local dialect and accent even within the last two or three generations.
That said, what is the problem with using double negatives?
Formal English writing and vernacular is based more upon the French half of the language with its Latin origins. As such, the use of negative concord has been dropped. Where the rules for formal writing and speech go, the informal usage follows. Where the lag is most pronounced, speakers are looked upon as unintelligent because their usage lags behind.
When you look at the reasons behind the shift in the rule, the real problem with negative concord, where it is no longer the standing convention, becomes obvious. What is the foremost role of formal language? It’s in structuring law, including contracts. Therefore, the clearer the language, the lower the incidents of loopholes or unintentional effects of poorly worded documents.
Let’s take another look at the examples above to see this in action. Taken in context, it is obvious each instance was intended to add emphasis to the intended statement. However, when you take the sentences literally, as is the case in most legal documents, their meanings change.
“I can’t get no satisfaction.”
What can’t the person get? No satisfaction. Therefore it stands to reason they are being satisfied since it is the state of being unsatisfied that eludes them.
“You don’t need no college education to understand the Bible.”
What do you not need to understand the Bible? No college education. If no college education is detrimental to your ability to understand the Bible, then one must conclude you do need a college education to comprehend scripture.
From a legal standpoint, negatives within a statement are treated almost like those in mathematical equations. Instead of compounding, they cancel each other out, thus changing the original meaning of the statement.
So, I should always avoid them.
My knee jerk reaction to this is to say yes, but the truth is more complicated. When it comes to formal writing and speech, avoiding negative concord (double negatives) is a must. However, they are still a part of common vernacular to one degree or another depending upon several factors. Therefore, they can be useful in certain instances.
For example, when used well, they can add a bit of interest to dialogue or narration.
That’s it for this week’s lesson on negative concord or double negatives. If you have any questions or something to add, please chime in down in the comments below. Thank you for reading, and I hope you’ll come back on Dec. 13 for a discussion on subject verb agreement.
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