All About Double Negatives

Rolling Stones 'Satisfaction' Album Cover
'I Can't Get No Satisfaction' is an example of the nonstandard use of double negative for emphasis.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

There are two different definitions of double negatives in English grammar:

  1. A double negative is a nonstandard form using two negatives for emphasis where only one is necessary (for example, "I can't get no satisfaction").
  2. A double negative is a standard form using two negatives to express a positive ("She is not unhappy").

Examples of Double Negatives for Emphasis

  • "I won't not use no double negatives." (Bart Simpson, The Simpsons, 1999)
  • "Ther nas no man nowher so vertuous." (Geoffrey Chaucer, "The Friar's Tale" in The Canterbury Tales)
  • "Nor never none
    Shall mistress of it be, save I alone."
    (William Shakespeare, Viola in Twelfth Night)
  • "You ain’t heard nothin’ yet, folks!" (Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer)
  • "Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges!" (Alfonso Bedoya as Gold Hat in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, 1948)
  • "The world don't owe me nothing." (Delta bluesman Honeyboy Edwards)
  • "Listen here, Sam, this won't do you no good, you know." (Judith Lennox, Middlemere. Hachette, 2004)
  • "I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” (Muhammed Ali, February 17, 1966, quoted by Stefan Fatsis in "No Viet Cong Ever Called Me Nigger." Slate, June 8, 2016)
  • June Cleaver: Oh Wally, I wonder if you'd mind going to the supermarket for me.
    Wally Cleaver:
    Well, I guess I could. I'm not hardly doing anything.
    June Cleaver:
    Wally, you never use not and hardly together. Either you're not doing anything, or you're hardly doing anything.
    Wally Cleaver:
    Oh. I wasn't sure, so I stuck 'em both in.
    ("Beaver Finds a Wallet." Leave It to Beaver, 1960)

Mencken on Double Negatives

  • "Syntactically, perhaps the chief characteristic of vulgar American is its sturdy fidelity to the double negative. So freely is it used, indeed, that the simple negative appears to be almost abandoned. Such phrases as 'I see nobody,' 'I could hardly walk,' 'I know nothing about it' are heard so seldom among the masses of the people that they appear to be affectations when encountered; the well-nigh universal forms are 'I don’t see nobody,' 'I couldn’t hardly walk,' and 'I don’t know nothing about it.'" (H. L. Mencken, The American Language, 1921)

Definition #2: Double Negatives to Express a Positive

  • "It is hoped that American teachers may not find this Manual inappropriate to their use." (J.M. Bonnell, A Manual of the Art of Prose Composition. Morton, 1867)
  • "Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who was usually very late in the mornings, save upon those not infrequent occasions when he was up all night, was seated at the breakfast table." (Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles, 1902)
  • "I know a college president who can be described only as a jerk. He is not an unintelligent man, nor unlearned, nor even unschooled in the social amenities." (Sidney J. Harris, "A Jerk," 1961)

Triple Negatives

  • "You better not never tell nobody but God." (Alice Walker, The Color Purple, 1982)
  • "We try every way we can do to kill the game, but for some reason, nothing nobody does never hurts it." (Sparky Anderson, quoted by George Will in "Baseball Lit. 101," 1990)

A Triple Positive

"'I got interviews with all three remaining residents, and one of them told me Ruth Singh had received a visitor that night. So it was worth going back. Information that could lead to an arrest, as they say.'
"'Yeah, right, that'll happen.'
"'Well done, Meera, a triple positive to make an emphatic negative—nice use of English.'"
(Christopher Fowler, The Water Room. Doubleday, 2004)

Quadruple Negatives

  • "Why, sir, I never knowed no manner o' luck on no ship nowhen and nowhere, wi' unmarried females aboard." (Lovepeace Farrance, quoted by George Choundas in The Pirate Primer: Mastering the Language of Swashbucklers and Rogues. Writer's Digest Books, 2007)
  • Right down on the ground his stick he throwed.
    And he shivered and said, "Well, I am blowed."
    And he turned away, with a heart full sore,
    And he never was seen not none no more.
    (Robert J. Burdette, "Romance of the Carpet")
  • Proscriptions Against the Double Negative
  • "Most kinds of double negative are inappropriate in spoken and written Standard English except in jocular use . . .. This was not always so, however, and the double negative remains one of the best illustrations of what was once a perfectly acceptable locution being driven by the decisions of grammarians, not out of the language, but out of Standard use." (Kenneth G. Wilson, The Columbia Guide to Standard American English. Columbia University Press, 1993)
  • "The prohibition on double negatives may have begun with Robert Lowth, an 18th century Bishop of London, who wrote A Short Introduction to English Grammar. In it he stated that 'two Negatives in English destroy one another, or are equivalent to an affirmative.' Perhaps his high status as a bishop led people to believe that his strictures on language were divinely inspired. The ban stuck. In the late 19th century, for example, an educator commented: 'The student . . . is instructed how contrary to reason is a Double Negative.' Yet it never entirely disappeared. It is still found in some varieties of English, as in the old music hall song: 'We don't know no one wot don’t want no nine inch nails.'" (Jean Aitchison, The Language Web: The Power and Problem of Words. Cambridge University Press, 1997)
  • "Like many rules that are apparently based on logic, the view that double negatives are illogical is an artificial rule introduced in the eighteenth century. It first appears in James Greenwood's An Essay Towards a Practical English Grammar (1711), where we find the statement, 'Two Negatives, or two Adverbs of Denying, do in English affirm.' As is usual in such works, no support for the claim is offered; it is certainly not based on practice, since double negatives had been common since Old English." (Simon Horobin, How English Became English. Oxford University Press, 2016)

The Lighter Side of Double Negatives

  • Albert Collins: I'm not sharing with no one.
    Gene Hunt:
    What is that, a double negative? Don't they teach you anything in nutter school these days?
    (Andrew Vincent and Philip Glenister in Life on Mars [UK], 2006)
  • "'You shut up! You just shut up! You're a nasty horrid person and we don't want you playing in our house! Alice is my friend!'
    "'I wasn't doing nothing, I was only talking. I didn't touch nothing, I never--'
    "'That's a double negative! You're a stupid uneducated little snot, and you live in a council estate, and you're not allowed to play with nice people! That was a double negative, Alice, did you hear it? That's what happens when you ask them in. You'll be picking up all sorts of language.'"
    (Alan Coren, "Baby Talk, Keep Talking Baby Talk." Chocolate and Cuckoo Clocks: The Essential Alan Coren, ed. by Giles Coren and Victoria Coren. Canongate, 2008)
  • Dr. House: You two shower together?
    Dr. Cameron and Dr. Chase:
    Dr. House:
    Double negative. It's a yes.
    ("Half-Wit." House M.D., 2007)

Also Known As: negative concord

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "All About Double Negatives." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). All About Double Negatives. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "All About Double Negatives." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).