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I understand that you can't have a double negative...but also, 'anyone/anybody' in this sentence wouldn't make sense:

If I don't use the microphone, nobody will hear me

So why is this not considered a double negative? What is the logic here? Is it related to the IF clause?

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    It's not quite clear what you think is a double negative. Do you think that having two different negative is not allowed? Like "I don't have any apples and I don't have any bananas" would be a double negative? – Acccumulation Sep 18 at 2:45
  • @Acccumulation Keep in mind that English differs from many other languages in the way that we structure logical expressions. For someone coming from a language with negative concord, the rules about which negatives are allowed together and which are not can seem (and are) rather arbitrary, even though to native speakers the expression's logical intent is always clear. In many cases the same formulation in two different languages can have opposite meanings. – J... Sep 20 at 14:03
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    Very simple. It is not a double negative, because it isn't: "If I don't use no microphone, nobody will hear me". No one seems to have mentioned this. – Lambie Sep 20 at 16:49
  • @J... If someone is asking about a confusion they have about a supposed rule, it helps if they present a citation to the rule and explain how they think it applies. Just asking "How is X not Y?" isn't too helpful. Explaining why someone's reasoning is wrong is difficult when they don't say what the reasoning is. – Acccumulation Sep 20 at 17:56

11 Answers 11

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In most forms of standard English, negatives don't agree with each other, each negative negates something separately.

So:

  • "If I use the microphone, somebody will hear me" can mean that using the microphone causes at least one person to hear.
  • "If I don't use the microphone, somebody will hear me" can mean that speaking without the microphone causes at least one person to hear.
  • "If I use the microphone, nobody will hear me" can mean that using the microphone results in no one hearing
  • "If I don't use the microphone, nobody will hear me" can mean that speaking without the microphone results in no one hearing.

What people mean by not having double negatives is not that you can't have two negatives. It's that you can't have negative agreement. Negative agreement is where you say "I can't hear nobody" to mean that you can't hear anybody at all, or that you hear nobody at all. In negative agreement, the one negation applies to both words ("can" and "anybody"), commonly called a "double negative". Without negative agreement, "I can't hear nobody" would mean that you can hear at least somebody. Negative agreement is present in many languages, and variants of English, but generally not in variants of English considered "standard".

Usually you should reword sentences to avoid anything that sounds like negative agreement, so that it's not ambiguous whether you meant to use negative agreement or not. Your example, however, does not sound like something that could be negative agreement. This is, like you said, because they are two separate clauses joined by the "if" (and the elided "then").

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    Actually, the equivalent statement without negations would be "If somebody hears me, I use the microphone" :) – Hagen von Eitzen Sep 19 at 18:22
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    @HagenvonEitzen true. I think by now each aspect of my answer is better/more accurately covered by other answers here... – Dan Getz Sep 20 at 13:17
  • double negative: If I don't use no microphone, no one will hear me. You didn't even mention the most obvious fact here. – Lambie Sep 20 at 16:51
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The statement that one should not use a double negative is a caution against a particular dialect form well-known to native English speakers. It is something primary school teachers say to native speaking children. The caution should not be understood literally. It does not mean that all uses of double negation are incorrect.

A more precise statement of the rule would be: Standard English does not acknowledge negative concord. This dialect sentence displays negative concord:

If I don't use no microphone, no one will hear me.

Notice that in the first clause both the verb and its direct object are negated. This is negative concord because the two negatives are intended to reinforce one another.

As we have already said, standard English does not recognize negative concord. Instead double negatives cancel one another out to produce a positive. To illustrate this a teacher might ask the children to interpret the dialect sentence above as if it were standard English. The teacher guides them to an answer such as this:

I must not use a microphone if I want to be heard.

This is absurd of course. But it illustrates an important point: double negatives are not forbidden in standard English, they simple cancel one another out. It is only an error if negative concord was intended.

For example, this use of a double negative is good literary English:

Your complaints have not gone unheard.

The "not" and "un-" cancel one another out, so the sentence means:

Your complaints have been heard.

(Though the emphasis is a little different.)

The sentence in your question does not display negative concord like our dialect sentence. Nor do the negations cancel one another out (as in our example from literary English) since they are not in the same clause. Instead the two negations are in separate clauses joined in an if-then construct. We can simplify the sentence to this:

If no microphone, then no hearers.

We must use two negations in this sentence because the message is about two negations: negating the microphone negates the hearers.

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    "Your complaints have not gone unheard" is no more a double negative than "Your complaints have not been ignored." Both are perfectly acceptable English. But "Your complaints have not been not heard" IS an unacceptable double negative. – alephzero Sep 18 at 0:33
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    @alephzero Double negation is acceptable in English as long as the intent is that the two negatives cancel one another out as they do in "Your complaints have not gone unheard." Double negation is unacceptable only when the intend is to intensify as in "I didn't say nothing!". – David42 Sep 18 at 1:37
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    @David42 >>Double negation is considered informal or colloquial when the intent is to intensify as in 'We don't need no (prescriptivist) education" - FTFY – mcalex Sep 18 at 4:40
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    @FTFY I don't disagree. I meant to say "in formal English". – David42 Sep 18 at 20:15
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    @David42 Yes, terminology. Wikipedia on double negatives has this sentence 'Discussing English grammar, the term "double negative" is often[3] though not universally[4][5] applied to the non-standard use of a second negative as an intensifier to a negation.' So I meant this often, but apparently not universal, terminology, as opposed to en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Litotes (which is the same in English and in negative concord languages). – Vladimir F Sep 18 at 20:50
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A double negative is something of the form ¬(¬ P). The ¬ sign denotes negation.

Your statement is something of the form (¬ M) ⇒ (¬ H). The ⇒ sign denotes implication.

In classical logic, ¬(¬ P) is the same as simply P. In English, this is not quite so clear-cut, informal speech often uses double negative as emphasized negative instead.

But an implication statement is a different pair of shoes. (¬ M) ⇒ (¬ H) is actually logically equivalent to HM, i.e.

If anybody hears me, I use a microphone.

Which would be a bit of a weird way of phrasing it, but it does express the intended statement. A more cromulent appropriate formulation would be

If anybody is to hear me, I must use a microphone.

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    Love the logic and the symbols, leftaroundabout. Cromulent, however, is probably a bit over the top for a learners' site? We try our best to keep the language common, since that's generally what learners are starting with. – EllieK Sep 18 at 12:49
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    D'oh! I knew somebody would catch me out on that one... – leftaroundabout Sep 18 at 12:52
  • Interesting! I thought, having a microphone is just one of the prerequisites of being heard. Others must have speakers/headphones, there must be others in the first place. With double negative you can simply leave out the two negatives and get a positive (- -1 = 1). In this case, if you want to leave out the negatives, you will have to include all the other prerequisites, or formulate the sentence in such a way, that it's clear that it's only one of the prerequisites. The last sentence in the answer does just that, but it clearly takes quite some effort to get there from the original sentence. – GolezTrol Sep 19 at 5:31
  • In formal logic → is typically used to denote implication with ⇒ meaning meta implication. This distinction is very minute and probably doesn't matter here but if you want to be proper in terms of formal logic, → is the symbol you want to use. – Sriotchilism O'Zaic Sep 19 at 10:27
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    @SriotchilismO'Zaic well – at any rate, considering the unsharpness of English's semantics, the distinction between → and ⇒ is small potatoes! But for what it's worth, I would actually have written it $(\not M) \to (\not H)$ if ell.SE didn't (for some strange reason...) have MathJax disabled. In Unicode meanwhile, I found that → and ¬ both render so thin that I was worried they might be confused with one another. I guess ⟶ might work better. Then again, since about every discipline except formal logic uses double-stroke arrows for all implications, I daresay that's just fine here too. – leftaroundabout Sep 19 at 17:55
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Yes indeed. The if clause in the sentence makes a significant difference as compared to other common sentences.

If this would be considered in logical terms of computing world or mathematics, then it is very much possible to use double negation in a single sentence.

Also, as you already mentioned anybody/anyone simply doesn't make sense. No one/nobody is definitely the right term of usage.

Examples of double negative sentences

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The example sentence is probably not going to be considered as a "double negative" because the use of two negatives has not created more intensity. The two negatives "don't" and "nobody" appear to be used to assert an implication - "If no microphone, then no hearing", without intensity.

The logic for deciding whether a sentence includes double negatives is probably identification of a perception or intention that use of two negatives creates more intensity, as follows:

If "More intensity" = TRUE then "Double negative" = TRUE; if "More intensity" = FALSE then "Double negative" = FALSE.

For the example sentence it is probably indeed decisive that it is an "if-then" sentence. The separation of the two negatives across the "if-then" elements makes it unlikely that the two negatives create more intensity.

But in general, an "if-then" sentence construction might be inconclusive, when considering whether a sentence contains one or more double negatives. For example, variations on the example sentence that are still "if-then" sentences include:

"If I don't use no microphone, nobody will hear me".

"If I don't use no microphone, ain't nobody going to hear me".

These variations may be understood as saying the same thing as the example sentence — but with more and more intensity, where the two negatives "don't" and "no" intensify the "if" part of a sentence and the two negatives "ain't" and "nobody" intensity the "-then" part of a sentence. These variation sentences might be considered as examples of "double negative", on the logic identified above.

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Double negatives would be "If I don't not use a microphone" or "nobody will not not hear me." A negative in one phrase (no microphone, not hear) doesn't apply to the other.

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@FumbleFingers in a comment, answered:

The archetypal "double negative" for your cited context is “...nobody won't hear me.”

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I understand that you can't have a double negative

Your statement is incorrect

It may be the source of your misunderstanding. In English you can have a double negative. The meaning however doesn't accord with the meaning in many other languages.

For example

"I don't not like ice-cream" in English means "I do like ice-cream". Would you ever use that expression? Yes, it's possible. Consider the following:

Mary: Let's get some ice-cream.

John: But you do not like ice-cream!

Mary: I don't not like ice-cream. It's not my favourite but I do like it in hot weather.


In that example, "don't not" is a double negative that means "do". The two negatives cancel each other because there is one verb.

In your original sentence there are two separate verbs. This is not a double-negative, it is two separate negatives.

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This is more the case of hidden assumptions and overstating the impact for emphasis.

“If you don't use a mike,” the certain assumption is your voice won’t be as loud as it could be.

The hidden assumption is “Amplified” ;) that a mike,( amp and speaker) are needed for everyone to hear, yet some may hear it otherwise, but that’s insufficient.

This statement “treats the group as one“, so if some cannot hear, then the entire group cannot hear.

Thus the statement has loosely given unstated assumptions with a conclusion, rather than a simple statement.

“some may not be able to hear properly unless we use a “mike”

Neither example has a double negative adjective, just an assumed condition with an over-stated conclusion.

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It is a logical if / then statement, not a self-contradictory statement.

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For a statement to be a double negative, it must have two negatives with in the same statement. Since you have two statements in which one is dependent on the other, the negatives are not considered double. It's like saying 2-(-1) =, this equation is stating that a negative one is supposed to be taken away from two; so the equation (simplified) will be 2+1=. now if you have 2 - (-1) = __ - (-1) =, this equation would not be simplified to 2+2= because the next negative is only supposed to be read after the first part of the equation is finished. Now in English, if you take away the first clause, will the second clause make sense. So, your sentence with the second clause only would be "nobody will hear me." does this make sense by itself... if it does then it is its own clause and therefore a new statement, in this case a dependent clause. You wouldn't change the sentence to "one will hear me," if it was by itself. Now if you would have written, "nobody wouldn't hear me," then you will have a double negative because the meaning goes negative then positive with the second negative canceling out the negative and turning the meaning into a positive. Two negatives in the same clause.

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