Double positives, part 2

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The following tweet is from four years ago, but it's still relevant today.  Moreover, in reading through the replies to this tweet, I see interesting references to African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and remarkable resonances to Russian, including Vladimir Putin's "meddling".

I just saw a variant this morning in which the linguistics professor says, "There isn't a single language, not one, in which a double positive can express a negative."

Also recorded on this Penn website, but I don't know the date:

Linguistic humor, Double positive

Source: Brought to my attention by Christine Santorini Biser and Bob Julia. See also Sidney Morgenbesser*.

An MIT linguistics professor was lecturing his class the other day. "In English," he said, "a double negative forms a positive. However, in some languages, such as Russian, a double negative remains a negative. But there isn't a single language, not one, in which a double positive can express a negative."

A voice from the back of the room piped up, "Yeah, right."

*Under "Influence".

If there's a lesson from all this, at least for me, it's once again the importance of intonation in communication (and, of course, context).


Selected readings


  1. GeorgeW said,

    May 28, 2022 @ 12:46 pm

    In English, are there instances in which a double negative actually means a positive?

  2. chris said,

    May 28, 2022 @ 1:05 pm

    @GeorgeW: I can't deny it.

  3. unekdoud said,

    May 28, 2022 @ 1:20 pm

    @GeorgeW: It's not uncommon to find examples of litotes, no doubt.

  4. Phillip Helbig said,

    May 28, 2022 @ 1:42 pm

    What about a quadruple negative? Allegedly a Congressman once said “I am not opposed to the repeal of the prohibition”.

  5. ~flow said,

    May 28, 2022 @ 2:00 pm

    If you want to find triple and quadruple negatives, look at Microsoft configuration dialogs, like those for the now-defunct Internet Explorer; it had binary settings labeled like "do not avoid to circumvent protection against x". This is from memory but the truth was not so far from this. Any psycholinguist would've had a field day with me checking all the boxes and then get visibly stuck for a longish moment on double and triple negatives.

    **Edit** just searched for some images to proffer my (unfond) memories and what stuck out to me is the plethora of settings that read "turn off x". So when the checkbox is checked (is in the positive, 'OK, do it' state) that makes the program avoid doing something. This in its own right is a terrible idea.

  6. Philip Taylor said,

    May 28, 2022 @ 3:12 pm

    “I am not opposed to the repeal of the prohibition” — to which a fellow congressman surely replied "And I, Sir, am not unopposed to the repeal of the prohibition".

  7. KevinM said,

    May 28, 2022 @ 4:23 pm

    I always saw the Morgenbesser quote as "yeah, yeah," which is even more to the point. And how about a triple positive? Does the "She" in the Beatles song love you, or love you not, or not love you not?

  8. AntC said,

    May 28, 2022 @ 5:22 pm

    look at Microsoft configuration dialogs,

    My phone has something it calls 'Flight mode'. And if I want to stop my phone being a phone, I 'Enable Flight mode': "Flight mode allows you to turn off calling, messaging and data network features."

    To me those polarities are all wrong: "enable", "allow to turn off"? As if being an inert lump of plastic is some sort of desirable.


  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 28, 2022 @ 8:05 pm

    I cannot quickly find an account of exactly what words were said in the relevant language (presumably either Turkish or Bulgarian), but the story goes that the events that led to the martyrdom of St. Demetrius of Sliven (a/k/a Dimitar Slivenski) in 1841 during the Ottoman occupation of Bulgaria began when it was suggested to him that he convert to Islam and he sarcastically replied with something translated in one English account as "oh, sure." Unfortunately for him, this was taken by the Ottoman authorities as a sincere promise to convert, meaning his failure to follow through constituted apostasy from Islam, which was a capital offense for which he was duly executed. I have suggested that he be considered on this basis the patron saint of ill-judged sarcasm.

  10. Chas Belov said,

    May 28, 2022 @ 9:20 pm

    @~flow: You'll likely be pleased to know that in Windows 10 is a setting "Show animations in Windows". The default is on.

  11. Gregory Kusnick said,

    May 28, 2022 @ 11:43 pm

    Ant: In fact I do desire my phone to work as a radio-inert ebook reader or music player in situations where radio transmission is not permitted. Since this is not the default behavior of phones, it makes sense to call it a special mode that users must actively select.

    Similarly, I put on the parking brake when I want my car not to move, lock my doors when I want them not to be openable, and activate my firewall to prevent my computer from communicating indiscriminately. These are all perfectly sensible concepts in which a positive action has a negative effect.

  12. cliff arroyo said,

    May 29, 2022 @ 3:13 am

    "In English, are there instances in which a double negative actually means a positive?"

    In my dialect (roughly GAE) it depends on intonation and sentence stress.

    He didn't do nothing. (stress on nothing and optionally on he) = He didn't do anything.

    He didn't do nothing. (stress on didn't and optionally nothing) = He did something.

  13. Cervantes said,

    May 29, 2022 @ 7:43 am

    Old song: I ain't got nobody.

  14. Trogluddite said,

    May 29, 2022 @ 8:59 am

    @AntC said: "To me those polarities are all wrong.[…]Nerdview."
    Likely so in many cases, I think, but there are others where the only reasonable explanation seems to be the nefarious exploitation of the inversion-meets-monkey-brain effect – e.g. "I would prefer that your organisation not spam my email inbox every single day for the rest of eternity."

  15. BillR said,

    May 29, 2022 @ 10:27 pm

    Another old song: “Yes, we have no bananas”

  16. V said,

    May 30, 2022 @ 11:17 am

    J.W Brewer : "Да бе, да." Indeed a sarcastic double positive.

  17. V said,

    May 30, 2022 @ 11:45 am

    It can also mean resigned acceptance, depends on the tone contour. High-middle-low is resigned acceptance. High-low-middle is sarcasasm. Roughly speaking.

  18. V said,

    May 30, 2022 @ 11:51 am

    And low-mid-high is kind of like agreeable acceptance.

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