English Grammar in the Yewess - reply

Robin Leech robinl at NAIT.AB.CA
Wed Jun 26 08:10:32 CDT 1996

Grammatically, there is nothing wrong with a double negative - if it is
used correctly.  The problem is that its use causes confusion.

Example for correct use is this: "He could not not refuse her request."
Example for incorrect use is this: "He said it didn't make no difference."

A double negative, if used correctly, is always interpreted in the
positive (as in math, the presence of one negative cancels the effect of
the other).  A double negative, as in the example where it is
used incorrectly above, is interpreted by English-speaking people as a
negative, but, for the most part, by ESL people as a positive.

However, I think you will find that almost everyone will make an abrupt
stop in order to interpret the meaning of the correct example in the
sentence above.  If we who speak and write English as the mother tongue
have to stop to interpret, what do you suppose it does to those who are
not quite so au fait with English?

When I give double negative examples in class, such as the correct one
above, there is always considerable argument and discussion as to the
interpretation and meaning.  I teach my students NOT to use the double
negative EVER in technical and scientific writing.  Perhaps that should
read "NOT...NEVER"? (teehee).  We play with double negatives in class
mainly for the purpose of getting the idea across that it is confusing to
the reader or listener.

And, contrary to J. Beach's comment, good language promotes good
science, so I feel that there is a place in TAXACOM for airing English
grammar usage and problems.  If'n we don't speak 'n' write no good, how
we gonner tell other what we done did goodly?

Robin Leech

On Wed, 26 Jun 1996, Michael D. Hubbard wrote:

> To say the double negative is never interpreted as a positive is
> simply wrong! Maybe you don't interpret it that way, but many people
> do. It depends on the circumstance and use.
> *************************************
> Michael D. Hubbard
> Laboratory of Aquatic Entomology
> Florida A&M University
> Tallahassee, Florida 32307-4100 USA
> Voice: +1 (904) 561 - 2216
> FAX:   +1 (904) 561 - 2221
> E-MAIL: mhubbard at famu.edu
> http://www.famu.edu/cesta/agsci/entomol/mayfly.htm
> *************************************
> "And his answer trickled through my head,
>   like water through a sieve."
>           Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll

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