The Double Negative
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The Double Negative

by Bill Ball & Tony Scott

The use of the double negative for emphasis is, as we say, as old as the hills; and it was used in this way centuries ago much more frequently than it is today. But what is a double negative and why is it now regarded as an error? The easiest way to answer these questions is to give a few simple examples and then say why they are wrong.

1. I don't want no lessons from you.
2. I shouldn't be surprised if it didn't rain.
3. He didn't say nothing.

In sentence 1. 'don't and 'no' are both negatives;
in sentence 2. 'shouldn't' and 'didn't' are both negatives;
in sentence 3. 'didn't' and 'nothing' are both negatives.

In English, as in mathematics, we now regard two negatives as making a positive, with the result that each of the sentences quoted has the opposite meaning to the one intended:

'I want lessons from you'.
'I should be surprised if it rained'.
'He said something'.

It should be noted that in the following sentence (and in many sentences like it) the double negatives, 'not' and 'unnoticed', are perfectly acceptable because they make a positive that is intended.
I do not want to go unnoticed. (I want to be noticed.)