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In Practical English Usage section 370.7, Michael Swan writes:

extra negative in expressions of doubt

In informal standard spoken English, a negative verb (without a negative meaning) is sometimes used after expressions of doubt or uncertainty.

He gives two examples:

  1. I shouldn't be surprised if they didn't get married soon. (= . . . if they got married soon.)
  2. I wonder whether I oughtn't to go and see a doctor – I'm feeling a bit funny. (= . . . whether I ought to . . .)

In the first example, does the speaker mean she will get married soon or not?

  • @Jasper Which are? Could you point me to? – Dmitrii Bundin Oct 25 '14 at 5:32
  • @DmitryFucintv I did a bit of editing of spelling and grammar, of the question, not the quote - please let me know if it is okay – user11408 Oct 25 '14 at 5:35
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    Perhaps you could put in more of an excerpt from that lesson in Swan's grammar book, where it shows what Swan is trying to teach here. Otherwise, some people might end up misunderstanding the point of Swan's lesson and your example. – F.E. Oct 25 '14 at 6:16
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Dmitry has correctly copied the paragraph from the third edition of 'Practical English Usage'.

As Swan correctly notes, in informal standard (British) English "I shouldn't be surprised if they didn't get married soon" can mean "I shouldn't be surprised if they did get married soon".

However, the same words could be used if the speaker was expecting 'them' not to get married soon. Despite the potential ambiguity, the meaning is usually clear. In speech, if the expectation is of the marriage taking place, didn't is unstressed; if the expectation is of the marriage not taking place, didn't is stressed.

Sentences with the extra negative are not used in formal or semi-formal writing. They may be used in informal writing. The intended meaning will be clear from the context.

  • You said it can mean I shouldn't be surprised if they did get married soon can meant exactly the same. My question is can we use such a construction in more-or-less formal writing? – Dmitrii Bundin Oct 26 '14 at 4:59
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    We cannot use the negative construction with affirmative meaning in (semi-) formal writing. We use auxiliary DO in affirmative sentences only for emphasis. – tunny Oct 26 '14 at 7:54

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