2

If this girl can't spin five skeins, she will be killed by king.

However, all of a sudden she heard a sort of a knocking low down on the door. She upped and oped it, and what should she see but a small little black thing with a long tail. That looked up at her right curious, and that said:

'What are you a-crying for?'

'What's that to you?' says she.

'Never you mind,' that said, 'but tell me what you're a-crying for.'

'That won't do me no good if I do,' says she.

'You don't know that,' that said, and twirled that's tail round.

'Well,' says she, 'that won't do no harm, if that don't do no good,' and she upped and told about the pies, and the skeins, and everything.

This content is from "Tom Tit Tot" in English fairy tales.

I can't understand these sentence "That won't do me no good if I do","You don't know that", "that won't do no harm, if that don't do no good". Is "that" a small little black thing?

  • You probably know this, but just in case it's not clear: the passage you're reading uses a style of English you would never see today (even I find it difficult to parse). So try not to let this confuse you in the future :) – nick May 17 '16 at 4:54
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The emphatic "double negatives" in the first and third sentences are non-standard but common in dialect, equivalent to

That won't do me any good/harm OR That will do me no good/harm.

To do good means to cause a good result and to do harm means cause a harmful outcome.

The thats in the girl's lines refer to the girl's telling the 'black thing' why she's crying. The black thing's that refers to her assertion that her telling it won't do any good. The that's in the speech tag refer to the black thing.

You may paraphrase:

'Telling you why I'm crying won't do me any good if I do tell you,' says she.

'You don't know that telling me why you're crying won't do you any goood,' the black thing said, and twirled its tail round.

'Well,' says she, 'Telling you won't do any harm, even if it doesn't do any good,' and she upped and told . . . everything.

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  • Thank you for your helpful answer. I can understand you sentences. And do "double negatives" in the first and third sentences resolve to a negative? But does "double negative" usually resolve to a positive? – Yuuichi Tam May 16 '16 at 18:02
  • In standard English, a double negative implies a positive, but that is a comparatively 'modern' development--viz, since the 17th century. Earlier English employed negative concord, for emphasis, and that has stayed put in a lot of dialect. See this question. – StoneyB on hiatus May 16 '16 at 18:49
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    By the rules of logic, a double negative resolves to a positive. But English speakers using a double negative almost never mean it in the logical sense. Instead, they're using it as a form of emphasis, and the statement should be considered equivalent to a single negative. – cjm May 16 '16 at 18:49
  • No. It has often been claimed that in standard English, a double negative resolves to a positive, but this is false, and has always been so. With suitable context and emphasis, two negatives can resolve to a positive (eg Pinker's example of "Try as I might, I cannot get no satisfaction from this", which does mean that the speaker gets satisfaction). But in the normal case, every English speaker understands "It won't do me no good" to mean "It won't do me any good", so both speakers and listeners understand that double negative to be a negative. Therefore its meaning is negative. – Colin Fine May 16 '16 at 22:40
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    A double negative can be a positive, in the case of litote, but that usually looks rather different because one of the negatives is bound up in an adjective (e.g. "She is not unattractive" = "She is attractive"). – Kevin May 17 '16 at 3:20
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"That" is telling the creature why she is crying.

'Never you mind,' that said, 'but tell me what you're a-crying for.'

' [Telling you why I am crying] won't do me [any] good if I do, [tell]' says she.

'You don't know that,' that said, and twirled that's tail round.

'Well,' says she, '[Telling you why I am crying] won't do no harm, [even] if [telling you why I am crying] don't do no good,' and she upped and told about the pies, and the skeins, and everything.

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"'That won't do me no good if I do, ..."

It should be noted that this is using a double-negative to indicate a negative. Strictly speaking, the phrase would be interpreted as "This will not not help me", or "That will help me", but locally, these are sometimes used instead to indicate a single negative. "That won't do me no good" is meant to say "That won't help me". The girl is indicating that telling the visitor why she is crying won't actually help her.

"`You don't know that'..."

This is simpler. It should be interpreted as "You don't know [that telling me what is wrong won't help]".

"... 'that won't do no harm, if that don't do no good,'...'

This is another example of double-negatives being used as single-negatives. It can be read as "[Telling you...] won't be harmful, if [telling you] won't be helpful". She is deciding that, even if telling the visitor what she is crying about won't actually help her situation, it won't hurt her situation either.

The story definitely has a little ambiguity with its use of "that". In each quote, the main interpretation of "that" is "telling the thing why she is crying". I suspect, though, that the writer is doing this on purpose, and a second meaning can be read by reading "that" as the black thing.

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  • Thank you for helpful answer. I got it. And Is using a double-negative to indicate a negative common? – Yuuichi Tam May 16 '16 at 18:17
  • I would say most people don't use it, and it's generally regarded as incorrect, but when it is used, the meaning is usually understood. I think it should be noted, though, that there are times when one would use a double-negative to express that something specifically is a certain way. – Harris May 16 '16 at 18:37
  • Many speakers use it very often in their normal speech. Many never use it. – Colin Fine May 16 '16 at 22:44

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