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double negative
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n.
A construction that employs two negatives, especially to express a single negation.

Usage Note: It is a truism of traditional grammar that double negatives combine to form an affirmative. Readers coming across a sentence like He cannot do nothing will therefore interpret it as an affirmative statement meaning "He must do something" unless they are prompted to view it as dialect or nonstandard speech. Readers will also assign an affirmative meaning to constructions that yoke not with an adjective or adverb that begins with a negative prefix such as in- or un-, as in a not infrequent visitor or a not unjust decision. In these expressions the double negative conveys a weaker affirmative than would be conveyed by the positive adjective or adverb by itself. Thus a not infrequent visitor seems likely to visit less frequently than a frequent visitor. · "You ain't heard nothin' yet," said Al Jolson in 1927 in The Jazz Singer, the first talking motion picture. He meant, of course, "You haven't heard anything yet." Some sixty years later President Reagan taunted his political opponents by saying "You ain't seen nothin' yet." These famous examples of double negatives that reinforce (rather than nullify) a negative meaning show clearly that this construction is alive and well in spoken English. In fact, multiple negatives have been used to convey negative meaning in English since Old English times, and for most of this period, the double negative was wholly acceptable. Thus Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales could say of the Friar, "Ther nas no man nowher so vertuous," meaning "There was no man anywhere so virtuous," and Shakespeare could allow Viola in Twelfth Night to say of her heart, "Nor never none / Shall mistress of it be, save I alone," by which she meant that no one except herself would ever be mistress of her heart. But in spite of this noble history, grammarians since the Renaissance have objected to this form of negative reinforcement employing the double negative. In their eagerness to make English conform to formal logic, they conceived and promulgated the notion that two negatives destroy each other and make a positive. This view was taken up by English teachers and has since become enshrined as a convention of Standard English. Nonetheless, the reinforcing double negative remains an effective construction in writing dialogue or striking a folksy note. · The ban on using double negatives to convey emphasis does not apply when the second negative appears in a separate phrase or clause, as in I will not surrender, not today, not ever or He does not seek money, no more than he seeks fame. Note that commas must be used to separate the negative phrases in these examples. Thus the sentence He does not seek money no more than he seeks fame is unacceptable, whereas the equivalent sentence with any is perfectly acceptable and requires no comma: He does not seek money any more than he seeks fame. See Usage Notes at hardly, scarcely.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2017 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
 

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