Thursday, February 22, 2007

Today's English lesson

From the American Heritage Book of English Usage:

Negative Energy

double negative equals a positive. It is a truism of traditional grammar that double negatives combine to form an affirmative. Readers coming across a sentence like
He cannot do nothing.
will therefore interpret it as an affirmative statement meaning “He must do something” unless they are prompted to view it as dialect or nonstandard speech. Readers will also assign an affirmative meaning to constructions that yoke not with an adjective or adverb that begins with a negative prefix such as in- or un-, as in a not infrequent visitor or a not unjust decision. In these expressions the double negative conveys a weaker affirmative than would be conveyed by the positive adjective or adverb by itself. Thus a not infrequent visitor seems likely to visit less frequently than a frequent visitor.

double negative equals a negative. “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet,” said Al Jolson in 1927 in The Jazz Singer, the first talking motion picture. He meant, of course, “You haven’t heard anything yet.” Some 60 years later President Reagan taunted his political opponents by saying “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” These famous examples of double negatives that reinforce (rather than nullify) a negative meaning show clearly that this construction is alive and well in spoken English. In fact, multiple negatives have been used to convey negative meaning in English since the tenth century, and throughout most of this history, this form of the double negative was wholly acceptable. Thus Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales could say of the Friar, “Ther nas no man nowher so vertuous,” meaning “There was no man so virtuous anywhere,” and Shakespeare could allow Viola in Twelfth Night to say of her heart, “Nor never none/Shall mistress of it be, save I alone,” by which she meant that no one except herself would ever be mistress of her heart.

double negative equals trouble. But in spite of this noble history, grammarians since the Renaissance have objected to this form of negative reinforcement employing the double negative. In their eagerness to make English conform to formal logic, they conceived and promulgated the notion that two negatives destroy one another and make a positive. This view was taken up by English teachers and has since become sanctioned as a convention of Standard English. Now if you use a double negative to mean “no” in formal speaking or writing, you run the risk of being considered an ignoramus. It’s probably best to look smart and use the double negative only when you want to imitate speech or strike a folksy note.

double negative with minimizing adverbs. The ban on multiple negatives also applies to the combination of negatives with adverbs such as barely, hardly, and scarcely. It is therefore incorrect to say
I couldn’t hardly do it.
The car scarcely needs no oil.
These adverbs have a minimizing effect on the verb. They mean something like “almost not at all.” They resemble negative adverbs such as not and never in that they are used with any, anybody, and similar words rather than none, nobody, and other negatives. Thus we say
You barely have any time left.
just as we would say
You don’t have any time left.
but we would not say
You barely have no time left.
since it would be an unacceptable double negative.

exceptions to the rule. The ban on using double negatives to convey emphasis does not apply when the second negative appears in a separate phrase or clause, as in
I will not surrender, not today, not ever.
He does not seek money, no more than he seeks fame.
You must use commas to separate the negative phrases in these examples. Thus the sentence
He does not seek money no more than he seeks fame.
is unacceptable, whereas the equivalent sentence with any is perfectly acceptable and requires no comma:
He does not seek money any more than he seeks fame.

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