Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Today's English lesson

From the American Heritage Book of English Usage:

Hardly Working

In Standard English, hardly, scarcely, and similar adverbs cannot be used with a negative. You cannot say
I couldn’t hardly see him.
This violation of the double negative rule is curious because these adverbs are not truly negative in meaning. The sentence
Mary hardly laughed.
means that Mary did laugh a little, not that she kept from laughing altogether. So why should hardly and scarcely be banned from use with a negative like not? Adverbs like hardly and scarcely may not have purely negative meaning, but they share some important features of negative adverbs. They combine with any and at all, which are characteristically associated with negative contexts. Thus you can say
I hardly saw him at all.
I never saw him at all.
but not
I occasionally saw him at all.
Similarly, you can say
I hardly had any time.
I didn’t have any time.
but not
I had any time.
and so on. Like other negative adverbs, hardly, scarcely, and their companions cause inversion of the subject and auxiliary verb when they begin a sentence. Thus we say
Hardly had I arrived when she left.
on the pattern of
Never have I read such a book.
At no time has he condemned the movement.
Other adverbs do not cause this kind of inversion. You would never say
Occasionally has he addressed this question.
To a slight degree have they changed their position.
What’s more, adverbs such as hardly can be said to have a negative meaning in that they minimize the state or event they describe. Thus hardly means “almost not at all”; rarely means “practically never”; and so forth. This is why they cannot be used with another negative such as not or none.

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