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Asking this because I'm worried that canceling out double negatives can completely change the original meaning of the sentence. I know context and the speaker/writer's intent are also important but is there a general rule(s) of thumb?

Here is a simple example:

  • I don't want no food.

If I cancel out the negatives, it means "I do want food". If I don't, I believe there is more emphasis of not wanting food than just saying, "I don't want food". In this case, the meanings are completely different.

Here is a more complex example (even though this sentence technically has double negatives, I'm not entirely sure if this counts as a double negative sentence because of the way it's structured):

  • You couldn't live with it if it wasn't your own decision.

If I were to cancel out the negatives, it would be "You could live with it if it was your own decision". If I don't, it seems similar to the cancelled version? If you can't live with it if it wasn't your own decision, it would imply that you can only do so if it was your own decision.

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  • The point about double negatives is that the second cancels out the first. You don't correct the problem by changing both, only the second one. If I don't want 'no food', logically I do want some food. The correct version is "I don't want any food." Mar 27 at 7:00
  • @KateBunting Sorry, don't you mean the first negative cancels out the second? Since you said later that, "only the second one" and provided the correct version. I'm also assuming you can't do this for my second example because both negations are considered real such that they can be their own sentence (by removing the "if").
    – Max
    Mar 27 at 19:05
  • No, I meant what I said. "I don't want (any) food" is a simple negative. Adding a second negative ("no food"), according to logic changes the meaning of the sentence - I don't want 'no food' therefore I must want some. Of course you could also do it by removing the first negative - "I want no food" - but that would be a less natural way of saying it. Mar 28 at 7:31
  • The second example isn't a double negative in this sense. The implied meaning is "You can only live with it because it was your own decision". Mar 28 at 7:33
  • Generally speaking, if there is an if between the two negatives you are not seeing a double negative. You are seeing a negative in two separate clauses. A double negative appears in the same clause. Bob won't see sally, if he never goes to visit her, is not a double negative. Those negative do not act on each other. They are separate. Bob won't never see sally, is a double negative. Apr 29 at 13:29

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In general, I use the process of canceling double negatives only to help my understanding of what is being said. I would rarely use it to actually restate someone else's words, primarily because doing so often makes a subtle and undesirable change in the meaning.

But even for that first use, an important part of analyzing is to figure out the actual intended meaning of the original, and in particular to decide if the double negative is real, or only apparent. We can use your example to illustrate:

I don't want no food

That could be read figuratively, as an emphatic and even scornful declaration that the speaker does not want any food. Something like:

I don't need any help from you or anyone else. I don't need no money; and I won't accept no sympathy. And for sure, I don't want no food.

But here, the double negative isn't really a double negative. It's only apparent. So canceling would completely invert the meaning from what was intended.

However, it could also be read literally, as in:

I'm trying to lose weight quickly, so I need to drastically reduce my calorie intake. But I have to eat something. I don't want no food.

In this case, there is a negation of a negation, and so logically they can be cancelled. However, even here you'd distort the meaning slightly. The intended meaning is probably not "I do want food" or simply "I want food" -- both of which are simply the result of canceling the double negation -- but rather, "I do want a little food".

To your second example: you are right to suspect that the structure is an issue.

You couldn't live with it if it wasn't your own decision.

Both negations are real, so in that sense we have two negatives, but one is not negating the other. So you can't simply cancel them out to produce:

You could live with it if it was your own decision.

Doing that would be committing the logical fallacy known as Denying the Antecedent


ADDED: The OP suggested other examples might help. Here's one I recall from the Big Bang Theory, S5E10 (YouTube Clip). Sheldon and Amy are at a movie, discussing their relationship as boyfriend/girlfriend:

Sheldon: I believe I would like to alter the paradigm of our relationship.

Amy: I'm listening.

Sheldon: With the understanding that nothing changes, whatsoever, physical or otherwise; I would not object to us no longer characterizing you as not my girlfriend.

Amy: Interesting. Now, try it without the quadruple negative.

The piece Amy is referring to, with the negatives enumerated, is:

I would not(1) object(2) to us no longer(3) characterizing you as not(4) my girlfriend.

The fact that at first glance "object" might not be seen as a negative shows how important it is to figure out the speaker's intended meaning. (Unfortunately, oftentimes the best way to figure that out is to do some cancellation of pairs, which means you have to spot the negatives in the first place. No one said this was easy!) One way to make it a bit clearer in this example is to notice that "object" could be replaced with "not agree" (strictly "not agree" is not equivalent to "object", but for illustrative purposes here it works). So you get:

I would not(1) not(2) agree to us no longer(3) characterizing you as not(4) my girlfriend.

Also, for the purposes of analyzing the logic, we can replace "no longer" with a simple "not", giving:

I would not(1) not(2) agree to us not(3) characterizing you as not(4) my girlfriend.

Clearly, since they are adjacent, the first two instances of "not" cancel . And it's not difficult to see that the second and third instances do as well. So we end up with:

I would agree to us characterizing you as my girlfriend.

And that does indeed match the gist of what Sheldon says, in response to Amy's challenge (1:36 into the clip):

Sheldon: Amy...will you be my girlfriend.

I hope I would be wrong to assume that the above won't fail to hinder your understanding. But if in fact that assumption is wrong, then I will desist from withholding an adequate apology. 😉

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  • So in my first example, context is really important there. And in my second example, based on your explanation, my assumption about both meaning being similar is wrong then. Do you know any good resources for learning double negatives based on my question and examples? It would be nice if you can show other examples too.
    – Max
    Mar 27 at 18:35
  • Context, yes, but the point is you need to make sure you understand what the person was trying to say, and that applies to both of your examples. Only once you've figured out their underlying meaning can you then decide if it is safe to cancel any pair of negatives. Concerning your second example: yes, your assumption about the meaning being the same before and after cancelling the negatives is incorrect. In that example, although there are two negatives, they do not constitute a "double" negative in the sense that they can cancel. As to a learning reasource; sorry, I don't know of any.
    – tkp
    Mar 28 at 16:51
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  • I don't want no food. This is typically associated with uneducated speech. (Or use some other term if you feel that the word uneducated is insulting).

  • I don't want any food. This is typically associated with standard speech.

That said: Double negatives do have a function in standard English.

  • They didn't say they wanted no food. They said they did want some food.
  • They didn't want no food. They wanted some food.
  • I didn't say no one would come to the event.

Those are acceptable as double negatives in standard speech.

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