When You Can't Get No Satisfaction: Double Negatives

President Trump has always been a practitioner of idiosyncratic grammar and syntax. “I have the best words,” he once announced. But if you write much, you know that having the best words is only half the battle—actually, less than half the battle. More important is arranging words in a meaningful order. Also, it is important to use words in a way that corresponds to reality. 

Last week, President Trump drew attention to that much-maligned grammatical construction, the double negative. There are two quite distinct uses of the double negative: one is socially acceptable, and one is less socially acceptable. 

In school you were taught not to say things like “I don’t have no money” or “I can’t get no satisfaction.” Your English teacher probably got a very prim look on his or her face and said something along these lines: “Two negatives make a positive, so ‘I don’t have no money’ means you DO have money.”

Well, maybe. But I don’t think anybody in the history of the world ever heard Mick Jagger sing, “I can’t get no satisfaction” and thought, “Sounds like Mick Jagger is able to get some satisfaction.” 

The other, more socially acceptable use of the double negative is the one that President Trump appealed to last Tuesday. In this kind of double negative, the writer or speaker actually does intend for the two negatives to cancel one another out. In this usage, “I don’t see why it wouldn’t be the Russians” would be a way of saying, “I see why it would be the Russians.”

While it is easy to overdo it, this kind of double negative has its uses. “I’m not un-interested” communicates a cautious openness that “I’m interested” doesn’t. (“You’re not wrong” is a similar construction whose stock seems to be rising these days.)

So how do you know which kind of double-negative you’re looking at? How do you know that “I can’t get no satisfaction” means “I really can’t get satisfaction,” but “I’m not uninterested” means “I’m kind of interested”? The short answer is that you just know. We are all geniuses at making sense of language, by understanding context, tone, perhaps body language. Maybe a robot or a computer could misinterpret “I don't have no money,” but no human being ever has.

The rule against the double negative--that is to say, the Mick-Jagger kind of double negative--is arbitrary. In many languages, the doubling of negatives is a way to intensify the negative. This is called "negative concord." Speakers of proper English use negative concord in at least one instance: we double the negative never never to intensify the never-ness of a thing. 

The list of negative-concord languages includes Spanish, Portuguese, Persian, Russian, Italian, Polish, Czech, and Ukrainian. And up until a few centuries ago, this list included English. Shakespeare used the triple negative, "nor never none shall be," in Twelfth Night. And look at this doozy from Chaucer: 

He never yet no vilenye ne said, 
In all hys lif, unto no maner wight.

That’s a quadruple negative, something along the lines of "He didn’t never say nothing villainous to nobody." Those negatives aren’t turning into positives. They’re intensifying one another. 

I'm not making a case here for the double negative. If you use it, people will think you’re ignorant and semiliterate, and they might stop reading what you write. So don't use it.

But I do think it’s helpful to draw distinction between grammar rules that are arbitrary, and rules that actually concerned with clear communication. As I said before, in spite of the grammar flaws, nobody could misunderstand “I can’t get no satisfaction.”

But you certainly could misunderstand this sentence, which uses the more socially acceptable variety of double negative: “I would not ever want to say that there are not people on our campus that at first are not hard to understand, at least until students get used to them.” I've run across that one in a few different books and articles about the passive voice, and I've tried to parse it out, but I finally decided that life is too short. It's not the reader's job to make sense of a writer's prose. That's the writer's job.

All this reminds me of a joke: An English teacher once said to her class, “Two negatives make a positive, but two positives have never made a negative.” And a smart-aleck in the back row said, “Yeah, yeah.”