I've seen on the Internet: why do two wrong not make a right?

It doesn't seem right . I would ask the same question differently: why don't two wrong make a right?

Which way is correct?

  • 1
    For a different reason than the one you are focused on, both are incorrect: it should be "two wrongs" – toandfro Mar 10 '14 at 1:38

The issue of plural/singular aside, the phrase, "Two wrongs can't make a right" means that it is wrong to make a second error (usually an error in judgement) to try to cover up or "fix" the consequences of a first error.

An example: Against the rules, a child eats all of the Oreo cookies while his parents are out. The cookies are gone, the first "wrong" has occurred. The kid can avoid a second "wrong" by admitting what he has done and accepting the fact that his parents are going to be upset with him. That would be the smart thing to do, the first mistake has already been made, it's too late to make it better. But, our kid isn't too bright. He tries to cover his tracks. There is a grocery store next door and the parents have a jar of change in the bedroom. The kid steals a few quarters, goes to the grocery store and buys a new pack of cookies. He replaces the cookies he has eaten and thinks all is now well.

Maybe he'll get lucky and get away with it. But two wrongs can't make a right. Even if his parents never catch it, the kid has stolen from his parents. He has now committed a worse crime to try to cover up his first, more minor, transgression. That's usually the case, a second mistake made to cover up a first mistake is usually the worst of the two mistakes.

Too bad he left the empty packages of Oreos in the trash. :)

  • Another similar usage is in a situation where someone wrongs a person and the person wrongs him back. For example, suppose a guy asks his girlfriend out to a movie, and she says no, she's staying in to do homework. He sees her out on the town with another guy. Instead of talking to her about it, he runs around school saying mean things about her behind her back. That would be an example of two wrongs not making a right. – BobRodes Mar 10 '14 at 4:12
  • True, that's a good example of why context is so important. In this case, context should give the clue as to which usage fits in that situation. – Jolenealaska Mar 10 '14 at 4:46
  • Thank you for the answer, although the question was about the grammar not about the meaning. – Trident D'Gao Mar 10 '14 at 12:16
  • Funny, now that I read it again, your question is perfectly clear. The correct line is "Two wrongs don't make a right". – Jolenealaska Mar 11 '14 at 1:49
  • i love this example, re-read it 3 times – Trident D'Gao Apr 18 '18 at 20:21

The question seems to be about the placement of "not" when it is not contracted with "do". Plurals aside, both phrases are correct with regard to word order, but the one with a separate "not" sounds more formal, and slightly archaic.

The "not" contractions often shift the position of "not" in order to form the contraction. For example:

Is it not raining?
Isn't it raining?

You would never say "Is not it raining?", as you might expect from the contraction. The first version, again, sounds more formal, and a little archaic, but modern writers and speakers might use it for emphasis. Here's a phrase that sounds a little more natural to me:

Do you or do you *not* want to go?

because I want to emphasize "not".

Back to "Two wrongs": The wrinkle is that the writer is asking why a common expression is true. By taking the "not" out of the contraction and putting it later, the common expression stays closer to its original form.

  • +1. This is an important point. Learners sometimes produce sentences like "Is not it raining?" – user230 Mar 11 '14 at 22:16

Two wrongs don't make a right.

The first phrase preserves the position of negation, as you can see in the following sentence transformations:

  • Two wrongs don't make a right.
  • Why is it that, "two wrongs don't make a right"?
  • Why is it that, "two wrongs do not make a right"?
  • Why do, "two wrongs not make a right"?
  • Why do two wrongs not make a right? <- "Informal" and preserves original negation at the sacrifice of an more complicated ("odd sounding") construction.
  • Why don't two wrongs make a right? <- Typically better English, but does not preserve original negation.

Your second form "sounds better" because it's more economical and natural.

  • "Why don't two wrongs make a right?"

So which is "correct" or "more proper"? You could flip a coin because each has its pros/cons. I'd bet on "Why don't two wrongs make a right?" only because it's better English and it flows. But it's important to understand why #1 is "OK" as well.

Of course, one should use the plural "wrongs" instead of "wrong".


Two wrongs don't make a right, but three lefts do. ;-)

It's a oral admonition for people that justify poor behavior by pointing to other poor behavior. "Sally murdered many people. I'm just doing the same thing as Sally, nothing more terrible she's been doing." Or a child stealing from another child & justifying their bad behavior by saying someone stole from them.

  • That's not how it is normally used. It is when someone does something wrong, then does something else wrong to try to cover it up. – Chenmunka Apr 13 '17 at 10:11

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