NOUN: A construction that employs two negatives, especially to express a single negation.
USAGE NOTE: Traditional grammar holds that double negatives combine to form an affirmative. Readers will therefore interpret the sentence He cannot just do nothing 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, 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. •A double (or more accurately, multiple) negative is considered unacceptable in Standard English when it is used to convey or reinforce a negative meaning
, as in He didn't say nothing (meaning “he said nothing” or “he didn't say anything”). Such constructions are standard in many other languages and in fact were once wholly acceptable in English. Thus, Chaucer could say of the Friar, “Ther nas no man nowher so vertuous”; and Shakespeare could allow Viola to say of her heart, “Nor never none/Shall mistress of it be, save I alone.” In spite of this noble history, grammarians since the Renaissance have objected to the double negative in English. 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 rule, vigorously advocated by teachers of grammar and writing, has become established as a fundamental of standard usage
. •The ban on multiple negatives also applies to the combination of negatives with adverbs such as hardly and scarcely. It is therefore regarded as incorrect to say I couldn't hardly do it or The car scarcely needs no oil. These adverbs have a minimizing effect on the verb. They mean something like “almost not at all.” They resemble negative adverbs such as not and never in that they are used with any, anybody, and similar words rather than none, nobody, and other negatives. Thus, in standard usage one says You barely have any time left, just as one says You don't have any time left, but You barely have no time left is considered an unacceptable double negative. •Nevertheless, multiple negatives continue to be widely used in a number of nonstandard varieties of English and are sometimes used by speakers of all educational levels when they want to strike a colloquial or popular note
, as when President Reagan taunted his political opponents by saying “You ain't seen nothing yet
.” •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. Commas must be used to separate the negative phrases or clauses in these examples. 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.