Double negative definition: A double negative occurs when two negative terms are used in the same sentence.
What is a Double Negative?
What does double negative mean? A double negative means just that—two negative words. When these two negative words are used in the same sentence, they create the double negative.
Double negatives can include the same negative term or different terms.
A double negative sentence actually results in a positive sentence.
Double Negative Examples:
- There is no way you will not go.
In this sentence, the negatives actually cancel each other out, stating a positive. This sentence can be understood as: You will go.
Different Ways to Express Yourself
Three basic forms of expression exist.
Affirmative statements are simply positive statements. A “yes” is implied.
- (Yes) She eats dinner.
Negative statements are a denial. A “no” is implied.
- (No) She did not eat dinner.
Interrogative statements ask a question. They are not negative or positive by nature; however, they may include a negative term.
- Did you eat dinner?
- You did not eat dinner?
Forming the Negative in English
The negative statement can be formed in a few different ways, depending on what the speaker wants to express.
Forming the Negative With Not
Adding the term “not” between the auxiliary verb and the main verb will create a negative sentence.
Note: if the sentence is in the future, “not” only needs to be added between “will” and the main verb.
- They like the movie (present positive).
- They do not like the movie. (auxiliary verb “to do” and “not” added)
- They will like the movie (future positive).
- They will not like the movie (negative).
Forming the Negative With a Contraction
The auxiliary verb and “not” can be made into contractions to express the negative. The same rules for “not” apply for contractions regarding the future.
- I ride my bike (present positive).
- I don’t ride my bike (present negative).
- “Don’t” = do + not
- I will ride my bike (future positive).
- I won’t ride my bike (future negative).
- “Won’t” = will + not
Forming the Negative With Nothing
The term “nothing” creates a negative sentence when combined with a “to be” verb.
- There is nothing I do not like.
- My mom said that if I do not eat there will be nothing left.
The Double Negative: Double Negation in English
The double negative is created with a combination of two negative terms. Those two negative terms cancel each other out, creating a positive.
Here are a few popular way double negatives are created.
Not and nothing
- He didn’t tell me nothing.
- This means that he did tell him something.
Not and no
- I can’t get no satisfaction.
- This means you can get satisfaction.
Not and never
- I don’t never remember seeing something like that.
- This means that he does remember seeing something like that.
Ain’t and nothing
- I ain’t got nothing for you.
- This means I do have something for you.
Not with a prefix meaning not or no
- She was not un
- The meaning is that she was attractive.
- He was not non
- The meaning is that he was responsive.
- NOTE: The technical term for this type of sentence is a litote (more on this below).
Other Kinds of Double Negatives and Advice
Double negatives can be confusing for two primary reasons.
First, they mean the opposite of a negative; the two negative elements cancel each other out, and they actually mean a positive sentence.
Second, many uses of a double negative are considered grammatically incorrect.
Double Negatives to Express a Negative Statement
Using two negatives in a sentence to communicate a negative idea is usually considered an error. For example,
- I don’t know nothing about computers.
- You can’t tell me nothing.
In both of these examples, the presumed meaning is a negative statement, but the way the sentence is worded with two negative elements, it creates a positive statement.
These types of sentences should be reworded as follows,
- I don’t know anything about computers.
- You can’t tell me anything.
There is, however, another kind of double negative that isn’t always considered an error.
Double Negatives to Express a Positive Statement
There is a certain kind of understatement known as litotes that employs two negatives to express a kind of positive or neutral statement.
- She was not unattractive.
- Your efforts have not gone unnoticed.
In both of these examples, the intention is for a positive statement, not a negative one. This is part of the literary technique known as litotes, where you deliberately understate something to reinforce a statement.
The above sentences carry a slightly different meaning than had a simple affirmative been used.
- She was not unattractive.
- She was pretty.
The first is a more understated way to say she wasn’t ugly, but she might not be pretty either, so it is its own unique category with a slight nuance.
As with writing, these kinds of rhetorical devices must be used with purpose and with intent. Using them without a clear purpose can devalue your text and lead to accusation of being overly rhetorical, vague, and unclear.
If it is easier to say something more straightforward, and you lose no meaning by doing so, it is always better to clearer than to be more opaque.
Summary: What are Double Negatives?
Define double negative: The definition of a double negative is a type of construction that uses two negatives.
Most double negatives are considered grammatical errors. They are unclear and confusing to the reader because their meanings are not straightforward.
There are some literary techniques, however, that makes use of two negatives in a sentence. These are known as litotes.