Double Negation

Topics: English language, African American Vernacular English, Grammar Pages: 6 (2226 words) Published: May 22, 2013
As a universally used linguistic structure, double negation has long attracted the attention of scholars in foreign countries. But so far the research of double negation is limited to the study and analysis of negative words, negative markers and the surface structure of double negation, and is also restricted to one particular language. Despite the rallying cries of grammarians to banish the double negative, many people see the construction as a logical and vital part of the English language. The grammar rules enforced by grade-school teachers can stick in the brain as reflexive laws that must be followed: it is incorrect to start a sentence with "but" or end one with “of” make sure your subjects and verbs agree; double negatives are illogical, etc. But many matters in grammar are not straightforward, and the double negative is a good example.

Double Negation
No is one of the most powerful words in the English language. When toddlers grasp how powerful no is, they often become intoxicated with it, saying no to everything, even the things they want. It gets a response, people pay attention, and it infuriates parents. As children grow, they use no differently, but its raw, naked power is always there: used at the right time, no can stop people in their tracks. How we express no has, and continues to be, a dynamic feature of the English language. As with small children, people through history who have had no power have been able to express some tiny element of power just by saying no. But how they express that no has been the subject of social and grammatical wrangling through the ages. For many centuries, all elements of the English-speaking world used the double, even triple, negative to express negation. Fowler defines the double or triple negative as the “repetition of uncancelling negatives”, as in, “I’m not working no overtime tonight.” Geoffrey Chaucer used the multiple negative in the Prologue to The Canterbury Talesto describe the Knyght:

He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde, (line 70).
Two centuries later, Shakespeare used it in Twelfth Night:
Nor never none
Shall mistress be of it, save I alone (Act III, scene i).
David Crystal asserts that “constructions involving a double negative (I cannot go no further) were commonplace” in the Renaissance, and Fowler says they were “the regular idiom in OE and ME in all dialects”. Anyone who has any knowledge of the history of the English language knows that before the eighteenth century two negatives frequently occurred together to emphasize the negative aspect of one's meaning. Then, in the eighteenth century, everything changed. Up until this point, Latin had been the language used in the world of commerce, and in the classroom and the textbook (Mitchell, 2001, p. 32). It was the language of the elite. But English was supplanting Latin—the living language was beginning to dominate the dead one. Latin has a logical, unchanging grammar, and self-appointed prescriptivist grammarians, such as Robert Lowth, felt that if English was to become a legitimate language, i.e., one worthy of the position of power, it must have a codified grammar that would stop the language from changing or being “corrupted” (Mitchell, 2001, p. 35). According to Baugh and Cable, Lowth’s attitudes towards grammar were conservative, which meant that “his grammar was more in accordance with the tendencies of the time” and “at least twenty-two editions of his grammar appeared during the eighteenth century”. Lowth wrote in his “Short Introduction to English Grammar” (1762) that the double negative was no longer acceptable. Here, he was superimposing Latin grammar on English: since Latin has no double negative, suddenly multiple negation was now deemed incorrect. He (and subsequent prescriptivist grammarians such as Lindley Murray) claimed a logical rationale, saying that “Two negatives in English destroy one another, or are...
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