Double negatives

Since the 17th century, English grammarians have spoken out against constructions with double negatives. Before the 17th century, double negatives were considered perfectly acceptable in English, like in present-day Spanish, French and many other languages of the world. Even today we're often taught to avoid a double negative.

The idea is that we should try to avoid saying something like:

  • He didn't not get the prize.

This is because in logic, two nots cancel each other out. So the statement above would logically mean:

  • He got the prize.

However, the languages of the world are not always used like formal logic, and English is no exception. Double negatives are often used for emphasis.

In logic, not is called a negative operator which negates everything that occurs to its right, or, in technical language, that occurs within its scope. It can be used multiple times as long as each instance has a different scope. For example, in the next sentence the first not relates to the verb saying, while the second not relates to the verb are

  • I'm not saying you are not a perfectionist. [S1A-008 #61]

Which of the following is closer in meaning to this example? Can you see the difference?

  • I am saying you are a perfectionist
  • What I'm not saying is that you are not a perfectionist.

We thus see that not can be used to express quite subtle differences in meaning.

What word class does not belong to? It is often considered to be a negative adverb.


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