Double positives

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An old joke, attributed originally to Sidney Morgenbesser, is replayed in cartoon form at YourMometer for 3/31/2011:

{Hat tip to Alex Baumans.]


  1. John Cowan said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 3:21 pm

    The speaker appears to be behind the door, which is perhaps the door to the Other Side, where Sidney is yakking it up with the best.

  2. jfruh said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 3:38 pm

    Huh, is it actually true that some languages use double-negatives to mean positives? I always thought that double negatives worked universally like they do in spoken English, i.e. "I ain't got no money" means "I have no money" not "I have some money." One of the things that always bugged me about smug prescriptivists saying "You can't use double negatives because two negatives make a positive" is that no native English speakers would ever parse them as such. Is this not universal?

    [(myl) Standard English instances include things like "not uncommon" (= "somewhat common"), "nobody doesn't like Sara Lee" (= "everyone does …"), etc.]

  3. Rasselas said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 3:51 pm

    In Latin, nonnulli from non 'not' + nulli 'none' is a usual way to say 'some/several people'.

  4. D said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 3:53 pm

    In non-vernacular English, two negatives make a positive. In some other languages, and in some English dialects (or whatever) double negations still make a negative.

    I think the comic's creator made a mistake, since the "some languages" include English, which I guess shouldn't be a problem for her English speaking students.

  5. svan said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 3:59 pm

    Even in spoken English there is the use of two negatives to mean a somewhat-positive, as in "Well, I didn't not drink" with stress on "not" to mean that I drank, but maybe (I'd like you to think) not a lot.

  6. Ø said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 4:18 pm

    The expression "not unheard of" is not uncommon in spoken English. But did I spell it right?

  7. Ilana said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 4:21 pm

    jfruh: double negatives with positive meaning are not uncommon even in English. ;-)

  8. The Ridger said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 5:33 pm

    Not only does English – with the right intonation – use two negatives to make a positive, Russian has two different negative particles (ne, ni). Ne is the primary negater and ni reinforces that, so a 'ne' with any number of 'ni's remains negative, but two 'ne's are indeed a positive. Ne is generally used on the verb, and ni elsewhere, but there are nuances. Ne mogu skazat' = can't say; nikomu ne mogu skazat' = can't tell anyone; nikomu nikogda ne skazat' = can't ever tell anyone; nikomu ne skazal = I didn't tell anyone; BUT nekomu skazal = there was no one to tell, and ne mogu ne skazat' = can't not (ie, can't help but) tell…

  9. George Amis said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 5:57 pm

    I have a friend (American, now a citizen of Israel) who has an eloquent double positive which is clearly and extremely negative in force: "Yeah, yeah." (Both words are spoken with a level intonation, the second at a lower pitch than the first.)

  10. Ellis said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 5:57 pm

    It's perhaps worth noting here that Italian 'No, no, no…' when interjecting into someone's conversation means 'Yes, yes, yes…'.

  11. Ellis said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 5:58 pm

    Or can mean, rather.

  12. John said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 6:23 pm

    Interesting that the comic is if anything overcorrecting the usual prescriptivist nonsense that two negatives -always- make a positive, by implying that it's never the case in English.

  13. GeorgeW said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 7:14 pm

    Is there any language that systematically and consistently makes positives from double negatives?

  14. Bobbie said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 7:28 pm

    Reminds me of Jim Trott from "The Vicar of Dibley" He was known for saying "No,no. no, no, Yes…."

  15. D.O. said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 8:15 pm

    May be this is the place to park famous "I am shoked, shocked to find out that gambling is going on in here." Don't believe in this theory myself, but maybe others will…

  16. Mark P said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 8:30 pm

    Is "yeah, right" not just simple sarcasm?

    "Yeah, right" means, at least where I live, connotations of "I don't believe you" or "you're making this up" which is not quite the same in emphasis as "no, you're wrong". It is a caustic aside rather than merely disagreeing.

    If someone gives you something horrible to do and you greet it with a scornful "fabulous!", you are hardly applying a double positive.

    Another two-word example might be "pretty ordinary", which means, of course, "absolutely terrible".

  17. chh said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 8:32 pm

    Ellis, I think some English speakers also interject with "no" when they agree. Maybe it's when there's a presupposition that the first speaker holds a unique or controversial point of view.

    I don't do this myself, but I'd expect to hear it at least in southern New Jersey.

    Speaker A: "I happen to dislike clam chowder made with cream."
    Speaker B: "No, definitely. Me too."

  18. Duncan said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 9:37 pm

    Just last night, I was listening to a "hardstyle" Internet radio station and heard again HP Baxxter, frontman of the (German based) Scooter, shout the lyric from "The Question is, What is the Question" (2007):

    This is an announcement!

    Please refrain from not smoking!

    (Crowd goes wild.)

    Of course there, the double-negative is a deliberately STRONG positive, made even the more so due to the play on double-negativity.

  19. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 11:02 pm

    @George Amis: That Yeah, yeah you described is common enough to be the other possible punchline of this joke.

    @Mark P.: Yes, these expressions are just sarcasm, and the comic is just a joke, not linguistics.

  20. J. Goard said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 12:08 am

    Huh, is it actually true that some languages use double-negatives to mean positives? I always thought that double negatives worked universally like they do in spoken English

    Of course! A huge percentage of languages are like this. A typical example from Korean:

    아니, 사실은 모르-지 않다[…] 그런데 그걸 내가 받아들이-고 싶-지 않다.
    no, truth-TOP not.know-NEG […] but that-thing-ACC 1P-NOM accept-want-NEG.

    'No, actually I don't not know. But I don't want to accept it.'

    The familiar European "double-negatives" typically result from grammaticalization processes applying to a construction which combines a (unitary) negative with another word as emphasis. For example, the pas in French [ne…pas] comes from the meaning '(a single) step', and rien from 'a small bit of, a hint of'. English any comes from the meaning 'one', possibly with a diminutive suffix. "Double negative" is a description people apply after the construction is deeply entrenched and the original meaning less activated (or gone altogether).

  21. John Walden said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 1:34 am

    "I don't know anything" in Spanish is "No sé nada" . I don't see how either, taken on its own, or both, taken together, have a meaning which is less activated, let alone gone altogether. You can say "no sé" and though it's uncommon "Sé nada". And words like "nunca" can be combined with words like "nada". "Nunca veo nada" (I never see nothing (=anything)). It's not as if either is playing second fiddle to the other.

    My Spanish is not excellent though, so I might not have it completely right.

    My favourite double negative is something like "I can see why they built a windmill here. On this hill it never isn't windy".

  22. Terry said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 6:03 am

    Interesting.. the double-negatives to mean positives is very common in Chinese language…

  23. Pflaumbaum said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 7:20 am

    Standard English has 'double negatives' too, of course, but no-one complains about their supposed illogicality, because they're used by prestige speakers. CGEL notes three constructions with fancy technical names, but I don't have my copy with me to look them up. As far as I remember they include examples like these:

    Not in my car you don't!

    She won't come today, I shouldn't think.

    I wouldn't be surprised if it didn't rain.

    The last one is ambiguous, but the 'double negative' interpretation – "I think there's a good chance it will rain" – is perfectly natural.

    One thing I've never understood: prescriptive critics complain that in a clause like

    They didn't do nothing

    the negatives 'cancel out' to mean they did do something. But surely by that logic, a 'triple negative' clause like

    None of us didn't do nothing

    ought to be fine? Is negative concord only 'illogical' when there are even numbers of negative polarity items?

  24. Peter Taylor said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 8:00 am

    The more interesting double-negative is Spanish is no VP hasta que no VP (es).

    A literal translation of the construct would turn "No sales a jugar hasta que no fregues los platos" into "You're not going out to play until you don't wash the dishes".

  25. Spell Me Jeff said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 8:57 am

    I wouldn't be surprised if it didn't rain.

    I use this structure all the time. I always figured it had something to do with the conditional, but damned if I can explain it.

  26. Alex said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 9:08 am

    Classical Chinese uses double negatives as a literary device to convey an affirmative proposition. As far as I know, in modern Mandarin, the double negative is treated the same way it is in English–that is, for the most part it's simply considered ungrammatical, as two negatives would cancel each other out and thereby constitute the positive.

    In Classical Chinese double negatives are frequently employed to convey a kind of affirmation. It's used as a literary or poetic device. For example, the ancient Chinese philosopher Xunzi, in his discussion of what distinguishes humans from other animals, writes in his conclusion: Gu ren dao mo bu you bian, Therefore, the way of being man is not not (mo bu) having distinctions, where "mo bu" (not not) is used to mean "why of course! it is this predicate (you bian) that we say most definitely of this subject (ren dao).

  27. Mr Punch said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 9:34 am

    This "joke" was probably funny the first time. But the double positive is an intensifier, and negative sense derives from a tone that denotes sarcasm ("yeah, right") or impatience ("yeah, yeah").

  28. Ken Kukec said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 10:02 am

    Isn't the use of double negatives to emphasize the positive considered a figure of speech called "litotes" (which, I think, is a special case of "meiosis," the use of understatement)? I recall that Norman Mailer used to get a lot of mileage out of the construction "not for no reason…"

  29. Dan Lufkin said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 10:28 am

    A double negative is required in Afrikaans — Hy praat nie Afrikaans nie (He doesn't speak Afrikaans) — once right after the verb and again at the end of the sentence. Oddly, there's a similar construction in colloquial Swedish — Jag har inte sett honom idag inte (I haven't seen him today). The negation markers (nie, inte) act like brackets setting off what is being negated.

  30. R said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 10:44 am

    John Walden: You can say "no sé" and though it's uncommon "Sé nada".

    "Sé nada" doesn't strike me as grammatical. Are you perhaps thinking of "nada sé"?

    I can only imagine "sé nada" coming up in some epistemological discussion in the sense of "to have knowledge of nothing," whatever that means.

  31. Philip said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 12:32 pm

    How about French? Double negatives are required: "Je ne parle pas . . "

    Spanish uses double negatives for emphasis.

  32. Shmuel said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 12:34 pm

    I wouldn't be surprised if it didn't rain.

    Barring a context making it clear that the normal interpretation could not apply, I would take that literally. All the meteorologists are forecasting stormy weather, but if the day turns out to be beautiful and sunny, the speaker will not be surprised.

    (Extra detail added so you won't mistake what I mean by "take that literally.")

    But surely by that logic, a 'triple negative' clause like

    None of us didn't do nothing

    ought to be fine? Is negative concord only 'illogical' when there are even numbers of negative polarity items?

    Umm, of course. The problem with "None of us didn't do nothing" isn't that it's illogical; it's that it's needlessly convoluted.

  33. Will said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 2:05 pm

    "I wouldn't be surprised if it didn't rain" is only ambiguous in writing. In speech, the intonation pattern makes it clear. If there is extra emphasis on the "didn't", it means "If it does not rain, I will not be surprised"; if there is not extra emphasis there, it means "If it does rain, I will not be surprised".

    But as far as the written sentence goes, my intuition aligns with Shmuel's. Without a context to say otherwise, I would always read the meaning as "If it does not rain, I will not be surprised".

  34. LDavidH said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 2:43 pm

    @Dan Lufkin: In Swedish, that extra "inte" (not) at the end is added for emphasis or style; it's completely optional and doesn't change the meaning. I would put a comma before it, if using it in writing (which I would on;y do if writing dialogue, and rarely then). It is not at all in the same category as the "double negative" of Afrikaans.

  35. KevinM said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 3:22 pm

    "I'm going to miss not being there."
    An idiom of the "I could care less" variety.

  36. John Walden said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 3:29 pm

    R you're right: I was thinking of "Solo sé que nada sé" but got myself all turned around. I think before "sé nada" there has to be something negative or restrictive.

  37. Eli Morris-Heft said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 4:53 pm

    Personally, I think the most interesting part of this discussion is how many commenters assumed that "many languages" in the dialogue of the comic implicitly included English. (There's no context that indicates that to me.)

    I have it on some authority that more negatives creates an emphasis on the negative in Middle English (and I'm sure I've seen some examples of that in Early Modern English – Shakespeare to be precise).

    I wonder if there are more languages where an even number of negatives makes a negative statement or where an even number of negatives make a positive statement. It's the difference between marking polarity and flipping it – and I can't think of anything else in language (off the top of my head) that flips rather than marks. (Counterexamples welcome.)

  38. John Walden said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 5:31 pm

    Of course some negatives are there to be positive:

    Wouldn't you like a biscuit?

    Shouldn't we be going?

    Hadn't we better ask him?

  39. Kylopod said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 8:08 pm

    I've heard this one before. I don't think it's really accurate. The punchline seems to imply that "Yeah, right" adds two positives together to create a negative. In reality, it's simply a sarcastic expression where each word independently has a negative meaning. You could convey the same negativity by saying "Yeah" alone or "Right" alone. So "Yeah, right" is in fact two negative words reinforcing each other. A non-sarcastic equivalent might be "No, definitely not."

  40. marie-lucie said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 11:45 pm

    I wouldn't be surprised if it didn't rain.

    "No sales a jugar hasta que no fregues los platos" into "You're not going out to play until you don't wash the dishes".

    I agree that the negative form in the second clause in both languages must have to do with the conditional or subjunctive aspect. Similar (not quite equivalent) French examples would be:

    J'ai bien peur qu'il ne pleuve (I am afraid it might rain, lit. — that it might not rain)

    Il ne faut pas le/la laisser jouer avant qu'il/elle n'ait fait la vaisselle (S/he should not be allowed to play before s/he did the dishes, lit. … that s/he did not do the dishes).

    The Spanish and French examples have the negative ne in the second clause as a continuation of the similar Latin structure, where the verb of the second clause is considered as potential rather than actual, although not strictly negative (in French, a reinforcing particle such as pas or jamais would be used only if the potentiality was itself considered negative, eg j'ai bien peur qu'il ne pleuve pas, "I am afraid it might not rain" when rain is actually the desired outcome).

  41. Pflaumbaum said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 4:48 am

    @ Shmuel, Will –

    Sure, one interpretation may be more salient than the other in different media and tones, but the point is that the 'double negative' interpretation – like the other two types – is regarded as perfectly good English. Negative concord only appears to be deprecated when used by working-class, provincial or black speakers.

    @ Shmuel – convoluted because it uses an extra word, or semantically convoluted? It's not the latter – it simply replaces negative polarity items like 'any-' words with absolute negators like no- words.

    Anyway, convolution isn't normally the reason given for deprecating it, logic is. And in fact, the same argument from logic could be made about the Standard version, if we insist on reading 'negative polarity' any as 'free choice' any:

    I didn't see any pigeons

    Oh, so you didn't see just any pigeons… that means you did see some pigeons, right? Of course, intonation almost always means there's no chance of ambiguity – just as it does with I didn't see no pigeons: in both cases, the concord interpretation can be canceled by stressing the negator/NPI:

    I didn't see NO pigeons ("I saw some pigeons")

    I didn't see ANY pigeons ("I saw some particular pigeons")

  42. Ellen K. said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 9:20 am

    For me

    I didn't see ANY pigeons ("I saw some particular pigeons")

    doesn't work. It has to be

    I didn't see just any pigeons.

    for that meaning.

    I didn't see ANY pigeons

    Even with the stress on "any" that still means, for me, "I saw no pigeons".

  43. Pflaumbaum said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 10:37 am

    I wasn't going out with anybody at the time: I was single.

    I wasn't going out with ANYBODY at the time: I was engaged to the King of Norway.

  44. Ellen K. said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 1:00 pm


    Same thing. To me, without the word "just", even with emphasis, that means the person wasn't going out with the person she (or he) was engaged to.

    Maybe it's a language variety difference. (I'm American, middle of the country.) Anyone else have any thoughts on that?

  45. vanya said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 1:50 pm

    So "Yeah, right" is in fact two negative words reinforcing each other.

    That's true. You can extend it theoretically into infinity " sure, yeah, right,exactly, just what you said" as long as you're sarcastic.

    By the same token "no" can be a positive word in English:

    "did you pay the bill, like I told you?"
    "No. I used it to wipe my ass"

    Where "No. I used it to wipe my ass" means "Yes, I did pay it , thanks for asking."

  46. John Walden said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 1:54 pm

    I get it.

    I'm a very exclusive doctor. I don't treat ANY patients.


  47. LDavidH said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 2:29 am

    I agree with Ellen K. – without some qualification, the combination "not" + "any" excludes everybody. But add "just", or "old…", and it becomes clear (well, sort of; take "I don't treat any old patients", where stress is still very important to clarify if they are agist or just exclusive…).

  48. Peter G. Howland said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 2:35 am

    Yes, what Ellen K. said @ 1:00 pm.
    @John Walden – The word "just" is required before "any" in order to convey exclusivity.
    West Coast American English

  49. Pflaumbaum said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 3:55 am

    It's always surprising how much dialect differences affect judgments of acceptability on here. Those examples seem transparent to me… not the most natural way of making the point, but perfectly grammatical – like using I can't get NO satisfaction to mean I find it impossible not to be at least a little bit satisfied.

    Unfortunately, this is a very hard one to check with a corpus search.

    One last try:

    There's a dog coming up the road.
    Wait a minute. That's not ANY dog – that's Lassie!

  50. CNH said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 12:16 pm

    Double negatives are a no no. [Apologies to Jasper fforde].

  51. John Walden said,

    April 8, 2011 @ 1:24 am

    Does "I'm not any Linguist" only mean "I'm no linguist"? Or does insistence on the "just thing" depend on person?

  52. LDavidH said,

    April 8, 2011 @ 2:22 am

    Oh well, I guess it just goes to show that you just can't pin language down into nice, neat rules… just like life itself!

  53. Kylopod said,

    April 8, 2011 @ 3:55 am

    I've noticed that there's one double negative that is quite common in the speech of educated Americans: the phrase "no nothing." It usually appears at the end of a set of three: you say something like "The mail box today was empty: no bills, no applications, no nothing." It's always puzzled me how this phrase seems to go unnoticed and to lack the stigma of other double-negative constructions.

  54. LDavidH said,

    April 8, 2011 @ 10:54 am

    Maybe it's considered an idiom or a set phrase? Or is it a quote from somewhere?

  55. Kylopod said,

    April 8, 2011 @ 5:15 pm

    It isn't clearly processed as a quote (like "You ain't seen nothin' yet"), and with Google News and Google Books I found instances of it going back to at least the early 19th century.

  56. Pflaumbaum said,

    April 9, 2011 @ 6:02 am

    I'd also question whether no nothing is really not stigmatised by prescriptivists. It's certainly very informal.

  57. Kylopod said,

    April 9, 2011 @ 10:15 pm

    I'm sure there are prescriptivists who stigmatize it, and I do see a frequent corrected version, in which the "no" is eliminated, leaving simply the word "nothing." (As in, "Last night, Congress made a budget deal: no shutdown, no furloughed employees, nothing.") But I just see it used a lot more, and in a fairly unselfconscious way, by educated speakers who would not be so quick to say things like "The police don't do nothing about the crime in this city" (unless, of course, the statement is intended to mean the police do something). For example, here it is in a New York Times article from 1999:

    "That is to say, no collar buttons to button down, no pants legs to cuff. No tweeds. No nothing."

    In contrast, I couldn't find any NYT articles containing the phrase "didn't do nothing" that weren't quotations.

    I do agree it's informal, and I wouldn't say it has no stigma at all, but it's a lot less stigmatized than I'd expect from a fairly blatant double-negative construction.

  58. Pflaumbaum said,

    April 10, 2011 @ 4:25 am

    Fair enough. It may have a bit less acceptability here (England)… in the Guardian I can find one example from a theatre critic, but otherwise only comments from readers.

    Question for anyone still reading who speaks a language with negative concord as the standard system: Is it possible to cancel the negative implication by emphasis, as in my examples above? So that Je n'ai RIEN fait would mean, "I did do something".

    I'm fairly sure this is the case in Romanian: Eu n-am facut NIMIC = "I did do something", "I wasn't totally useless/idle."

  59. Merri said,

    April 12, 2011 @ 8:20 am

    I'd like to submit a rare case of sesquinegative : in Belgian colloquial French, "non peut-être ?" (no perhaps) mean "beyond all doubt". Seems like it is a shortened version of "perhaps you'll dare gainsay it ?"

  60. John said,

    April 13, 2011 @ 5:56 am

    @Kylopod I've heard this one before. I don't think it's really accurate. The punchline seems to imply that "Yeah, right" adds two positives together to create a negative. In reality, it's simply a sarcastic expression where each word independently has a negative meaning. You could convey the same negativity by saying "Yeah" alone or "Right" alone. So "Yeah, right" is in fact two negative words reinforcing each other. A non-sarcastic equivalent might be "No, definitely not."

    In Glasgow, it's always "aye, right". "Aye" or "right" on their own are used as positives. I've never heard one or the other used sarcastically to denote a negative, only the combination of the two.

  61. Machteld said,

    April 15, 2011 @ 1:50 pm

    "I wouldn't be surprised if it didn't rain" I'm not a native English speaker. The only meaning I can give to this sentence is: there is a fair chance that it might not rain after all. That is how we learned is in our grammar lessons at school and from English radio stations.

    In French "ne … pas" or "ne …. rien" are no double negatives. The two words belong together to form one negative.

    If we would have translated sentences meaning "I have no money" as "I ain't got no money" we would have failed our English exams.

    In Dutch some people use double negatives when they mean a negative: "ik eet nooit geen appels meer" (I never eat no apples anymore) instead of "ik eet nooit meer appels" . This is local dialect. It is considered to be incorrect. People using this phrase might expect the answer "you are lying, since you are not eating an apple right now".

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