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Myths about Double Negatives

This week we'll be discussing several myths that surround the infamous double negative. The following rules are based on information from The Gregg Reference Manual, tenth edition.¹

Which words have a negative meaning?
Before we go any further, let's identify some words that have a negative meaning. These include, but are not limited to, the following:

●  no ●  never     
●  not (and related contractions)    ●  no one
●  cannot ●  words beginning with un-  or in-      
●  none ●  hardly
●  nor ●  only
●  neither . . . nor ●  scarcely
●  nothing ●  nowhere


Myth #1: Never use more than one negative word in a sentence.
A negative word affects only the clause in which it is located, not the entire sentence. In other words, you may use one negative expression in each clause. A double negative occurs only when there are two negative words in the same clause.

Examples:
●  If I can't attend the party tonight, I won't need to buy a dress
   after all.
●  I have never been to that country, and I do not plan to travel there.


Note:
A second negative expression can be used in the same clause to reinforce the first negative expression.
 
Examples:
●  No, I don't want spaghetti for dinner.
●  She would never, never say something like that.


Myth #2: Using a double negative is never correct.

Most of us were taught to avoid double negatives at all costs. However, if you intend to create a positive meaning, it's often acceptable to use two negative words to do so―if you can do so with eloquence.
 
Examples:
●  The author's books are not unknown to me.
●  I don't want to sit here and do nothing all day.


Myth #3: Two negative words always equal a positive.
This principle is true most of the time, but it doesn't hold water when it comes to famous rock songs! You'll notice that the following phrases retain a negative meaning even though they contain two negative words. Note: I wouldn't suggest using these expressions in your next English paper or business proposal!
 
Examples:  
●  "I can't get no satisfaction." ― The Rolling Stones                         
●  "You ain't seen nothing yet." ― Bachman-Turner Overdrive
●  "We don't need no education." ― Pink Floyd


A case study
The Gregg Reference Manual makes a special point of illustrating the difference between saying "I couldn't care less" and "I could care less." Say each sentence slowly while pondering its words, and you'll discover the difference for yourself.
 
●  Correct Use: "I couldn't care less" means "I do not care at all."
●  Incorrect Use: "I could care less" means "I still care a little bit."


Rules recap

1. You may use one negative expression in each clause of a sentence.

2. If
you intend to create a positive meaning, it's sometimes acceptable

    to use two negative words in the same clause.

3. If you're writing a rock song, two negative words do not
    equal a positive!
 

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Source:

1. Sabin, William A. The Gregg Reference Manual. Tenth Edition.
         New York: McGraw-Hill/Irwin, 2005, pp. 299-300.