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Double negation expressions like the below ones are confusing to me, but in reality similar sentences are ubiquitous.

I don't dislike the police.

It's not uncommon for parents to know the gender of a baby before they enter the delivery room

nobody who does not rise early will ever do any good

Here's my questions.

  1. Does it sound strange when you hear I don't hate ... instead of I don't dislike ..., It's not rare instead of It's not uncommon, and nobody who rises late ... instead of nobody who does not rise early...? Do they make difference?

  2. Is there any case that the two negative elements in a double negation sentence cancel out each other and turn out to be a pure positive meaning? e.g. I don't disagree with that. → I agree with that.

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  • I think that as a general rule if you can re-write the sentence to avoid the double negative it makes it easier to read. Only people who rise early will ever do any good
    – mdewey
    Aug 22 '20 at 15:27
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Does it sound strange when you hear I don't hate ... instead of I don't dislike ...? Or It's not strange instead of It's not uncommon, and nobody who rises late ... instead of nobody who does not rise early...? Do they make difference?

It doesn't sound strange. There are differences in meaning. "I don't hate it" could mean "I might dislike it, but I don't hate it".

"Nobody who rises late" only rules out people who rise late, not people who rise on time. "Nobody who doesn't rise early" rules out people who rise on time, not just those who rise late. Of course, there is no exact definition of what it means to rise "on time", so that's more a difference of nuance, but "you must be an early riser" is a slightly stronger proposition than "you mustn't be a late riser".

Is there any case that the two negative elements in a double negation sentence cancel out each other and turn out to be a pure positive meaning? e.g. I don't disagree with that.I agree with that.

"I don't disagree with that" doesn't necessarily mean "I agree with that". It might mean "I don't have an opinion on that" or "I'll assume for the moment that you're right about that". Sometimes, "I don't disagree with that" gives the listener the impression that you agree with them, while stopping just short of endorsing their point of view.

Similarly, if something is "not cold", it doesn't mean it's warm, and if it's "not long", it doesn't necessarily mean it's short (it could be a moderate length).

On the other hand, if you say to someone "You're not serious", you mean "You're joking" or "You're being humorous/wry/frivolous/silly" or something of that kind. The chances are small that you are telling someone that they aren't serious but that they aren't necessarily being silly or jokey either - but it's a possibility in principle.

Some things are generally taken to be binary. In most circumstances, if you say a whole number is "not even", it means it's an odd number. If you say a binary digit is "not one", it must be zero. Most of the time, if you say that something is "not true" or "not correct" or "not right", you mean that it is wrong, and people will understand it that way, but of course there is room in philosophy for discussions about whether something can be neither true nor false, and so on.

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  • Thank you for the detailed explanation. I thought "I don't hate it" might not be exactly the same but nearly equivalent to "I don't dislike it". I now feel that non-native beginner English speakers like me must be careful using those seemingly similar expressions.
    – Takashi
    Aug 22 '20 at 21:32
  • Yes. For some speakers it could be nearly equivalent, dependent on their idiolect and context. I have heard "I don't hate it" used to mean something like "I'm open to the idea"/"I'm starting to like it" - but it could also be used as a euphemistic way of saying "I dislike it but I don't hate it". There is no universal interpretation. Tone of voice could be indicative, as well as emphasis.
    – rjpond
    Aug 24 '20 at 10:07
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Double negation implies neutrality:

  • I don’t dislike the police, [but I don’t like them either].
  • It’s not uncommon, [but it’s not common either].
  • Nobody who doesn’t rise early, [but not everybody who does rise early either].
  • I don’t disagree, [but I don’t agree either].
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  • A very helpful answer. My question is, would the native speakers really use the phrase such as "I don't dislike the police" or "Nobody who doesn't rise early"(Sounds very odd to me). They are grammatically correct but I bet native speakers wouldn't say such phrase.
    – user17814
    Aug 22 '20 at 21:27
  • @Kentaro The “nobody” one is probably too complicated, but the other three are not uncommon for native speakers.
    – StephenS
    Aug 22 '20 at 21:29
  • Thank you. But lol in a sense. (That you said "not uncommon").^^
    – user17814
    Aug 22 '20 at 21:31
  • @StephenS. Thanks. Your answer is concise and to the point. I actually thought that a sentence like "I don't disagree" could mean, in some cases, "I agree" because what a sentence really means always depends on the context.
    – Takashi
    Aug 22 '20 at 21:42
  • @Takashi Double negation is usually avoided in English, so when you use it, it is assumed you have a good reason. For instance, “not untrue” rather than the easier, simpler and clearer “false” implies a third option for what one might have assumed was a binary choice.
    – StephenS
    Aug 22 '20 at 22:13
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I agree with @rjpond. I'll try to give a slightly different slant to my answer.

Usually this sort of expression is used to deny an assumption, explicit or implicit.

Example

Assumption: People like you dislike the police.

Denial: I don't dislike the police.

Here's a conversation.

A: You have been convicted of some minor crimes. I assume that you dislike the police.

B: That's not true. I don't dislike the police. I just avoid them as much as possible.


Does that help?

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  • That kind of examples are quite helpful. Thanks.
    – Takashi
    Aug 22 '20 at 21:16

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