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I found the following sentences as some of the sentences that confuse a lot of ELL, and I, as a part of them, would like to understand them correctly.

"He didn't do nothing."

Means that he did something (minus+minus=plus). Correct?

Vs.

"He did nothing".

Means that he didn't do something. This a correct sentence?

"He didn't do something at all."

Simply understood that it is the same as saying "he did 0".

Vs.

"He didn't do anything." Here I have another big confusion. Once I've been told that it means that the man didn't do anything in world but something he did. But in other time I was told that the meaning is as the same as He didn't do something at all. This sentence can be said when someone suspected but we say about him that "He didn't do anything." or alternatively when complaining about someone that he didn't work at all.

marked as duplicate by stangdon, godel9, user178049, ColleenV Apr 10 '18 at 21:45

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  • The first example is grammatical in some dialects, but considered ungrammatical in any Standard English. Please clarify whether you are interested in standard or dialectical English. – choster Apr 10 '18 at 1:09
  • @stangdon Thank you for the link but there are some differences between the two questions. The current one is more comprehensive and it has structures / examples that are absent in the post that you linked to. (one example is: he did nothing) – Judicious Allure Apr 10 '18 at 1:15
  • If you need the at all, then ""He didn't do anything at all." not ""He didn't do something at all.". – user3169 Apr 10 '18 at 5:25
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You are right about

He didn't do nothing.

That is a double negative which translates into

He did something.

while

He did nothing.

actually translates to

He didn't do anything.

Notice that I use "anything" instead of "something" because "anything" is used in negative sentence whereas "something" is used in positive sentence and those questions that expect a positive response.

Reference: Here

Therefore, this sentence

"He didn't do something at all."

should be

He didn't do anything at all.

and that this sentence

"He didn't do anything." Here I have another big confusion. Once I've been told that it means that the man didn't do anything in world but something he did. But in other time I was told that the meaning is as the same as He didn't do something at all. This sentence can be said when someone suspected but we say about him that "He didn't do anything." or alternatively when complaining about someone that he didn't work at all.

is correct.

  • 2
    That is not what a double negative "translates" to. That is the deliberately trivialized, purposeful-stupidity version that some defenders of Standard English turn to in order to denigrate double negation. I don't think very highly of such tactics. Double negation is non-standard, but it is not actually confusing: it's a perfectly well-known, perfectly reasonable linguistic pattern, and (essentially) no fluent English speaker really sincerely believes "he didn't do nothing" means "he did something". (Relevant) – Nathan Tuggy Apr 10 '18 at 2:50
  • 2
    Hi Nathan, Maybe tone the invective down a notch. I don’t think reading a double negative as a positive is deliberately stupid. It’s not only the logical meaning but, in many contexts, it is a reasonable interpretation. – smatterer Apr 10 '18 at 4:16
  • @smatterer: I had intended to distinguish between the "lol double negative = positive" position that is sadly fairly common, and the answer here happening to contain it. But I see I didn't do a very good job of making that distinction. (Thank you, by the way, for an even tone.) holydragon, you may well have been taught this without yet having had a good chance to learn better, and in that case I wouldn't blame you. In general, though, I do think that the position as a whole comes from willful ignorance, and so it should be avoided. – Nathan Tuggy Apr 10 '18 at 8:47
  • @NathanTuggy Thank you for the clarification. Yes, I have learnt this from school, which I am not quite proud of. My intention is to help answering the question the best I can. If you think it is wrong, feel free to modify it. I am, by no means, consider myself good at English. If you cannot modify it please specify which part of my answer should be changed into what, and I will edit it accordingly. Actually, you should post your own answer as it might be way better than mine. Anyways, thanks again for pointing out the concept that I am currently misunderstanding it. – holydragon Apr 10 '18 at 9:26

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