“we don’t have nothing to hide” or double negatives, part 2

Not long ago I wrote about double negatives. I said that we usually think double negatives cancel each other out, but that there is a school of thought that says that a double negative can be used for emphasis. I didn’t remember my source, but after I had written that blog entry and had it queued up for publication I began a course from The Great Courses entitled English Grammar Boot Camp. The instructor, Anne Curzan, discusses this in detail.

Curzan says that while there are sentences in English where the negatives do in fact cancel each other out, a double, or multiple, negative is also frequently used for emphasis. Similar to my “I didn’t do nuthin’” example, she uses the example, “We don’t have nothing to hide.” She says it is clear that the meaning is “We have nothing to hide,” and not “We have something to hide.”

multiple negationShe points out that double negatives used for emphasis can be found in Chaucer. She tells us that you can find double negatives for emphasis in Shakespeare. In As You Like It, Celia says: “I cannot go no further.”

Curzan says that she has two answers when someone says, “But when you multiply two negatives you get a positive,” to support the idea that two negatives in a sentence cancel each other out.

  1. “Language is not math.”
  2. “OK fine, let’s do math. If you have two negatives in math and you add them, what do you get? You actually get a bigger negative.”

So if we listen to the defendant on the witness stand saying “I didn’t do nuthin’” in that cartoon, I guess we’re going to have to acquit.


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