19

I do not want you to go nowhere.

According to Grammarly, the above sentence contains a DOUBLE-NEGATIVE and should be modified as either of the following;

  1. I do not want you to go anywhere.
  2. I want you to go nowhere.

However, I think that the sentence is fine and that it doesn't contain any DOUBLE-NEGATIVE. Here is how I get the meaning of the sentence;

  • I do not want SOMETHING.
  • What do I not want?
  • I do not want that you do XYZ?
  • What is the XYZ that I do not want you to do?
  • It is that you are going nowhere, ie being in one place (all the time).

What do you think about the sentence? Did Grammarly get it right? Please, explain!

69

This answer is long because it can be very difficult for learners to distinguish a) Correct double negative in Standard English, b) Double negative error in Standard English, and c) Correct negative concord in non-standard English.

Direct answer

You are correct, you can say exactly what you mean with exactly that sentence. However, as you can see from the length of this and the other answers, correct Standard English sentences which have double negatives are often misunderstood as errors, dialect grammar, or worse, the opposite of what you mean.

You might want to rephrase your sentence, perhaps along these lines: "I don't want you stuck in one place", "I want you to do something, not be stuck and going nowhere".

Standard English

Standard English, as you will read on the BBC and the New York Times, has "negative polarity", which means that a double negative is actually a positive, though not necessarily with the identical intention as the obvious positive statement. A "double negative" is where there are two negatives in the phrase, although many people use the phrase only to mean a "double-negative error".

The OED says

double negative n. Grammar a syntactic construction containing two negative elements, esp. where only one is now expected in Standard English; either of the negative elements in such a construction.

  • I ate simple positive statement
  • I didn't eat simple negative statement
  • I didn't eat anything negative statement
  • I didn't eat nothing double negative which means "I ate something". This is a very rare construction which which emphasises that it is something, not nothing. "I didn't eat nothing, but it was very small."
  • I didn't not eat double negative, which means "I ate". This is a very rare construction which emphasises that it happened. "I didn't not eat, but it was so small it wasn't really a meal.

Your example

I do not want you to go nowhere.

This is a double negative, which is absolutely correct in Standard English but is rare. Its meaning is double: a) "you go nowhere", and b) I don't want that. This gives a positive sense, but is subtly different from the positive statement "I want you to go somewhere", and would only be used in sentences such as this: "I do not want you to go nowhere, I want you to go somewhere." As noted in comments, there is emphasis on the nowhere. (Thanks @chrylis) It is often needed to say things like "It isn't zero, but it is very small." One of the most common uses of correct double negatives is in an argument: Bert: "I did everything. You did nothing." Ernie: "I didn't do nothing, I did my share."

Alternatively it is a common error for the more usual sentences:

  • I do not want you to go or I do not want you to go anywhere Which means "I want you to stay", or
  • I want you to go nowhere which means "I want you to stay here" (but is somewhat awkward.)

Negative Concord in Non-Standard English

Be aware that many native speakers do not speak Standard English.

There are many varieties of non-standard English which have "negative agreement", also called "negative concord", and you will hear "I didn't eat nothing" where standard English has "I didn't eat anything". Many languages have negative concord, such as Russian, Spanish, Hebrew, and the general idea is that the parts of a sentence which are negatable must all agree. Just as in English we have gender agreement -- "She said she herself is tall like her father" must become "He said he himself is tall like his father" -- some grammars require all the variable parts of the sentence to match in positive or negative forms. In Spanish when you negate "Tengo sed también" (literally "I have thirst too") it becomes "No tengo sed tampoco" (literally "Not I have thirst neither"): we add "no" and alter "tambien" into "tampoco".

Amongst the many English dialects with negative concord are Cockney, for example Eliza in Pygmalion says "I ain't done nothing wrong" (Standard English: "I have done nothing wrong" or "I haven't done anything wrong"); West Country (of England) Sergeant Turner in Hot Fuzz: "Nobody tells me nothing" (StdE: "Nobody tells me anything"); African-American vernacular wiki: Jules in Pulp Fiction: "Don't do nothing stupid" (StdE: "Don't do anything stupid"), and Italian-American vernacular, Sonny in The Godfather: "Goddamn FBI, don't respect nothing" (StdE: "Goddamned FBI, they don't respect anything.") (Thanks @Bee and @OrangeDog in comments.)

Unless you are living in an area with dialect grammar, you are probably best advised to learn standard grammar. Certainly all tests and exams for learners of English would give Eliza, Sergeant Turner, Jules and Sonny poor grades.

The Wikipedia article on Double negative covers the variety well.

  • 3
    @ZeeshanAli Not sure I agree with this answer completely - not every sentence with two negative words is a "double negative". – Astralbee Jul 8 at 12:33
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    @Astralbee I'd say if it has two negatives, it's a double negative. Whether it's an error or not (in Standard English) depends on the intention. I agree with you that many people only use "double negative" as the name of a mistake. OED "double negative n. Grammar a syntactic construction containing two negative elements, esp. where only one is now expected in Standard English; either of the negative elements in such a construction." – jonathanjo Jul 8 at 12:46
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    Also, take all of this with context and a pinch of salt, since a lot of (at least BrE) speakers often use double negatives wrong to mean the exact oposite of what they are saying.... For example "Nobody tells me nothing" - Bill Bailey in Hot Fuzz actually means "Nobody tells me anything". This was the only example I could think of off the top of my head, but I have certainly heard Scousers do the same. Ref. – Bee Jul 8 at 15:08
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    I'll note that when the "rare constructions" are used in speech, there's always a spoken emphasis on the second negative: "I didn't eat nothing." – chrylis -on strike- Jul 8 at 22:29
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    My mother (also west country) always used 'Nobody don't tell me nothing' (a triple negative!) for 'Nobody tells me anything' – Tom Tanner Jul 10 at 9:22
7

I think everyone is missing the asker’s point and instead jumping on an opportunity to recite accepted grammar rules. I do not believe this is helpful in this instance. The basic rules and reasons to avoid double negatives with examples are incredibly common, and the asker clearly is aware of them.

The asker is pointing out that the sentence "I don't want you to go nowhere", although matching a double negative error in pattern, does not match the accepted reasons the double negative pattern is considered an error.

I think the asker is indeed right and that "nowhere" is not considered a negative in this instance of the word; "nowhere" in this instance, is the idea of failure.

Stating "I don't want you to fail" is no more a double negative than "I don't want you to lose" or "I don't want you to die". You are simply saying you don't want something bad for someone, which obviously has many uses in communication and should certainly not be avoided to meet some pedantic rule that is itself in error.

If Grammarly had suggested replacing "I don't want you to die" with "I want you to die", you would clearly see that it is Grammarly that was in error, so much so that the suggestion completely obliterates the intended idea, and can possibly turn an innocent statement into a crime.

Grammarly is indeed doing this with suggesting "I don't want you to go nowhere" with "I want you to go nowhere"; it completely changes the meaning of the sentence, in fact, it reverses it.

It is not doing this because the grammar is poor, it is doing this because it considers "nowhere" to be a negative. Nearly everyone uses the term "going nowhere"; its usage obviously needs an exception to the double negative rule. If not an exception, at least a proper suggestion.

Stating "I do not want you to go nowhere", at best, should have a suggested correction of "I do not want you to fail". Suggesting "I want you to go nowhere" is a complete and total failure of the grammar engine and the very reason we have grammar rules in the first place: Grammar rules are meant to help increase the clarity of an idea, not completely mangle and ruin it's entire meaning, which Grammarly is clearly doing in this case.

It is Grammarly that needs to change here, not the asker. The asker is pointing out an error in Grammarly's canned suggestions. It points out how simple the suggestion engine is, and that nobody wrote an exception to the meaning of "nowhere" defined in this sentence.

  • 4
    I wouldn't say it's incorrect to advise against this construction. As can be seen in the other answers, it's a phrase that can be read with two opposite meanings, and so should be avoided. If the tool is suggesting to change to one of those meanings when the writer intended the other, then that's clearly a sign of the ambiguity, and a more radical rephrasing is probably necessary (e.g. "I don't want you to stay put," or "I'd be unhappy if you went nowhere.") – Toby Speight Jul 9 at 14:52
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    I don't disagree with you and you're not wrong ;) – Nick Steele Jul 9 at 15:01
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    The reason Grammarly flagged this as an error (or maybe as a possible error) is that it's pretty common to say, if not to write, something like "don't go nowhere" with the intended meaning "don't go anywhere." To express "I want you to go somewhere" as "I don't want you to go nowhere" I think would be far less common. – nasch Jul 9 at 16:16
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    Makes sense and I agree, but I think Grammarly can punch up its quality a bit here and add a proper check to this intention. – Nick Steele Jul 9 at 17:45
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    To clarify that you mean to use the word "nowhere", you could say: I do not want you to go "nowhere". – English Major Jul 9 at 19:02
6

A true "double negative" is usually also a mistake and reverses the meaning of what the speaker really intended to say, for example:

I didn't see nobody.

This may be said by somebody to mean they didn't see anybody and is likely a case of them mixing up two idiomatic phrases:

  • I didn't see anybody
  • I saw nobody

There are other cases where it may seem a double-negative, but if the meaning is sound and what the speaker intended then it is fine.

For example:

You can't have nothing for breakfast.

The italicised words are technically negatives, but the meaning is sound and probably what the speaker intended. If you change just one of the words for a positive, it makes less sense:

  • You can have nothing for breakfast
  • You can't have something for breakfast

But, if you make both words positive you have something that does make sense.

You can have something for breakfast.

Your example then may be acceptable in the right context.

  • 5
    To my native-speaker BrE ears, "you can have nothing for breakfast" and "you can't have something for breakfast" both sound perfectly okay, with meanings "breakfast is not mandatory", "breakfast is prohibited", or "breakfast is unavailable", depending on context. – jonathanjo Jul 8 at 12:51
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    @jonathanjo BrE here too Jonathan, and I agree they are grammatical but when might you say them? – Astralbee Jul 8 at 12:53
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    @jonathanjo AmE here, and they sound a bit stilted to me (I'd probably say "you can skip breakfast" or "you can't have breakfast" to express those sentiments) but still clear and grammatical, especially if e.g. someone is complaining about the food choice. "Why can't I have the food I like for breakfast?!" "Well, you can have nothing as breakfast." – Nic Hartley Jul 8 at 20:27
  • @NicHartley There are loads of other idiomatic ways to say the same thing. Context is everything, and I can think of examples where the logical conclusion would be to say "you can't have nothing". I'm not suggesting that is the best way to say it, just that it isn't strictly "wrong". – Astralbee Jul 9 at 8:49
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    Note that "You can't have nothing" and "You can have something" are not equivalent sentences. Inverting both negatives in a double negative does not result in an equivalent sentence when modal verbs are involved (and the modal verb is what is being negated). "You can't have nothing" is equivalent to "You must have something" – Dancrumb Jul 9 at 14:07
1

A double negative of a verb form that is correctly used would be this:

  • I do not want you to go anywhere. Standard usage.

  • I do not not want you to go anywhere. Emphatic usage.

  • He doesn't want me to go. Standard usage.

  • He doesn't want me not to go. Emphatic usage.

Both those are used to mean, respectively, "I am not saying you shouldn't go somewhere." and "He is not telling me not to go."

That is not the same thing as a double negative where the double part is produced by a negative verb + a negative pronoun and is therefore, non-standard.

You either use a negative verb and a non-negative pronoun:

  • Don't worry. I won't go anywhere.

OR

You use a declarative verb and a negative pronoun.

  • Don't worry. I will go nowhere.

I am leaving aside the non-standard usages as it is too confusing to present everything at once.

Usages such as: "I don't want you to go nowhere." are non-standard.

That does not mean people do use these constructions, it just means they are non-standard. They can be dialectal, regional, local, marked as uneducated, etc.

The other answers have good links so I am not repeating them. I am merely trying to present examples clearly without any jargon.

0

The sentence "I don't want you to go nowhere" is perfectly fine. "He goes nowhere" means something similar to "He is stuck in a place" or "he fails", and "I don't want you to be stuck in a place" or "I don't want you to fail" are perfectly fine.

The problem is that people often use the same sentence incorrectly. Instead of saying correctly "I don't want you to go anwhere" meaning "I want you to stay where you are", they say "I don't want you to go nowhere". So some people mean the exact opposite of what you mean, and use the exact same words as you, of course wrongly.

When I read the sentence, I can't know whether you used the correct grammar or not, so I can't know for sure what you meant. Your software assumed incorrectly that you are one of those people who made a grammar mistake and tells you how to fix that mistake - which you mustn't do since you didn't make a mistake.

You might still consider changing the sentence. If you say "I don't want you to be stuck in this place" or whatever it was precisely that you meant, then it cannot be misunderstood.

(Just by coincidence, I read a review about a vacuum cleaner, someone asked "is it loud", and got a one word answer "quiet". Now I have no idea if they meant "quite loud" or "quiet". So an answer like that should be avoided.)

protected by J.R. Jul 9 at 19:42

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