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I'm asking this question because I was taught not to use double negatives, because they are ungrammatical and that people who use them sound uneducated. However, today here on this site I found an answer with a double negative and asked my self is it correct to use double negatives? Well my doubts arose since this answer has eight positive votes. Even though I understand the meaning of it, I still wonder if it is correct or not. Below is the answer I'm talking about as well is the link to it.


"It might add the subtle extra nuance of meaning that since you were born he's never not been in the family."

Link: https://english.stackexchange.com/a/158385

P.S. Not trying to put this site and the people from it in doubt, just clarifying and making sure to learn well this beautiful language.

marked as duplicate by ColleenV, Nathan Tuggy, Peter, user3169, Varun Nair Apr 29 '16 at 5:12

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  • 4
    The "ungrammatical" ones are things like I didn't do nothing, and We don't need no edookashun, which are "illiterate, non-standard" idiomatic intensifier usages. Your cited example is "literal", so it doesn't fall into that category of "forms to avoid". Used sparingly, never not is a perfectly valid (if stylised) way of emphatically conveying the near-synonymous alternative always. – FumbleFingers Apr 28 '16 at 17:39
  • Ok so what sould I do now delete my query? – Manuel Hernandez Apr 28 '16 at 18:14
  • 1
    Please don't delete your question - a duplicate is not as bad as it might sound. It just means that your question is very closely related to another question and that it makes sense to connect them together. I thought some of the answers of that other question may help you understand the topic a little better. There is some discussion on meta that might be helpful: meta.ell.stackexchange.com/q/3024 – ColleenV Apr 28 '16 at 18:31
  • 2
    From The Enemy of My Enemy - The New York Times: "Likewise, double negatives don’t always amount to positives; they can make negatives more intense, as in “I can’t get no satisfaction.” (... The eminent linguistic philosopher J. L. Austin of Oxford once gave a lecture in which he asserted that there are many languages in which a double negative makes a positive, but none in which a double positive makes a negative — to which the Columbia philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser, sitting in the audience, sarcastically replied, “Yeah, yeah.”)" – Damkerng T. Apr 29 '16 at 2:44

In English (formal English anyway), double negatives have the same effect as they do in math: two negatives make a positive (i.e. -1 x -1 = 1).

So saying "he's never not been in the family" means "there has never been a time when he was not part of the family," or more simply, "he's always been in the family".

Used like that, it is grammaticality correct.

The cases that are ungrammatical and make people sound uneducated is when they use a double negative when they don't mean to make it positive. For example, "he ain't got no time". That sentence technically means "he has time", but that's not what it meant. Every native speaker would understand what is truly meant, but it is never taught as correct.

  • 9
    This is a frequently repeated statement, which is however almost entirely false. It is simply not true that in English, two negatives make a positive. With suitable context and emphasis, they can do so (Pinker gives the example of "Try as I might, I can't get no satisfaction from ... "); and your example also works (mostly because "never not" is not a collocation in those dialects which do allow double negatives). But every English speaker (unless they're being deliberately perverse) will understand "He ain't got no time", so it is simply false that it means "He has time". – Colin Fine Apr 28 '16 at 17:55
  • 2
    @ColinFine I can agree that some people would say that if it's generally understood, then it's correct. However, I would also argue that anyone who cares about being grammatically correct would not use a double negative to convey a negative. It would not be received well if used in any formal setting (like a formal speech, or a cover letter when applying to a job), unless clearly meant as a joke. – Gabriel Luci Apr 28 '16 at 18:18
  • 4
    @GabrielLuci: I mostly agree with you. But I take "correct" as a purely social judgment: not following the rules of so-called grammar is exactly like not dressing appropriately. But appropriate dress for an interview is not appropriate dress for the beach. And appropriate grammar for an interview may not be appropriate grammar for hanging out with your mates. It's when people attach value judgments to these distinctions, and believe, or imply, that people who don't follow the rules are infrerior, that I get annoyed. – Colin Fine Apr 28 '16 at 18:24
  • 3
    @Panzercrisis: yes, but for me the opposition of "slang" and "proper grammar" is objectionably value-laden. That is why I say "standard" and "non-standard". – Colin Fine Apr 28 '16 at 19:53
  • 3
    Correctness is a power game. And if you want power, you'd better learn it. The rest is a matter for linguists (who do not judge people's speech). Incorrectly used double negatives will not take you far. Knowing how to wield them correctly, on the other hand, might get you somewhere...in terms of social hierarchies....I call this stuff; The Way of the World (like the Congreve play).... – Lambie Apr 28 '16 at 19:53

As in many languages, negative sentences in English select certain words (called "negative polarity items") and disallow others. A particular set of negative polarity terms is the "any" series: in negative sentences and questions, "some" words are generally replaced by "any" words, eg

I found somebody. vs I didn't find anybody.

In many dialects of English, the negative polarity terms are "no" words instead of (or as well as) "any" words, so:

I didn't find nobody.

These forms are not used in any Standard Englishes, and so the idea has grown up in the last couple of hundred years that they are "wrong". As is often the case with forms which some people use but which the establishment judges to be "wrong", a spurious rationalisation has been invented for that judgment (rather than admit that it is an arbitrary rule): that "I didn't find nobody" means "I found somebody". This rationalisation has its intellectual base in logic (but much language is not logical) - that it is false can be seen by the fact that even English speakers who do not use such forms themselves always understand them (unless they are being deliberately perverse): thus both the speaker and the hearer understand "I didn't find nobody" to mean "I didn't find anybody", and it is false to claim that it "means" "I found somebody".

However, while it is not true in general that "a double negative means an affirmative", it can do, given suitable context and prosody. Stephen Pinker gives the example "Try as I might, I must admit that I can't get no satisfaction from this", where it clearly means "I do get some satisfaction".

Your example is another case where the negatives do cancel out, and I think the reason is that the order of negatives does not allow for another interpretation. If I heard "He hasn't never been in the family", I would take that (special prosody or context aside) as a non-standard form of "He hasn't ever been in the family", with the non-standard negative polarity term "never" replacing the standard "ever". But what we have here is "he's never not been in the family", with "never" preceding "not". That is not a position where a negative polarity term is expected, so it is not a non-standard version of anything. Thus it can only be interpreted as a negative in the scope of a negative: it is grammatical, and both have independent meanings.

Note that they do not just cancel out: it doesn't mean "He has been in the family": it means something like "He has always been in the family", but with an added connotation, something like "contrary to what has been suggested".

  • 2
    I have never not agreed that never not is grammatical it's just that I had my doubts. – Manuel Hernandez Apr 28 '16 at 19:12

Adding to other great answers (I upvoted both of them), I would suggest several sentences for your thought. As you know, I am not a native English speaker, but the following sentences helped me a great deal understanding so called "double negative sentences".

  1. I ain't (don't) got (have) no money.

The double negative (DN) is used for emphasis. It means I don't have money. I really mean it.

  1. It won't do you no good.

The DN is also used for emphasis. It means It won't do you any good or There is no good doing this.

  1. I can't not think about you.

The DN is used to make a positive sentence (We can also say it is used for emphasis). It means I always think about you or I can't stop thinking about you.

When there is a boyfriend visiting his girlfriend after six months of not seeing each other and he says, "I can't not think about you," what would you think he means?

It all depends on situation and the following link has more examples for your further reading and understanding. One thing to remember is the DN doesn't always make a positive sentence.

  • 1
    Good answer; except that in 1 and 2 there does not need to be any special emphasis. For some people "I ain't got no money" is the normal unmarked form, with no special emphasis, corresponding to standard English "I haven't got any money" (mainly BrE) or "I don't have any money" (mainly AmE) – Colin Fine Apr 28 '16 at 19:50

I am wondering, as many people say, it is obviously grammatically "incorrect", however, when we see this in the light of the "pronunciation", these double negatives,

such as

I din't find nobody.


I ain't do nothing.

Coundn't find him nowhere.. so on and on,

aren't they easier to "pronounce" than the "standard English"?

  • Maybe, but there is no clear reason why they should be. They are simply an alternative form which has never been adopted into the standard, so people who believe in "wrong" call them "wrong". – Colin Fine Apr 29 '16 at 10:06

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