Wednesday, September 7, 2011

When It's Not Unacceptable

Perhaps Pink Floyd "don't need no education," but for those of us in academia, the question is sometimes asked: Can we use double negatives? (Aside: English majors also wonder if my use of passive voice a moment ago is appropriate. Having such thoughts, however, does not make you an English major; that fallacy is called "affirming the consequent." See: computer science or philosophy majors.)

While your elementary school English teacher probably told you to never use them, double negatives actually do have a place in our discourse. (Those teachers should have known to never say never, not ever, not ever.) Since grammar girl has a relatively lack-luster article on the topic, here are is my own two cents. You can use a double negative to (and only to)...

1) Contrast the positive with the absence of the negative
Example: "I thought she would have liked me, or at least not disliked me, but it seems I was mistaken."
Example: "But of course I'm excited! I can't not be excited!"

2) Highlight a deviation
Example: "I don't like that one. I don't like that one. I don't...hmm. Well, I don't dislike that one."
Example: "Unlike previous concerns, this is no insignificant matter."

3) Avoid committing to positivity (or negativity)
Example: "I don't dislike your course, professor; I just have other courses which interest me more."
Example: "I am not impressed, nor am I unimpressed."

What we're talking about is using the double negative for well-thought-out strategic rhetorical purposes. When people say not to use double negatives, they're trying to avoid:

1) Confusing sentences
Example: "Isn't it true that you were never there that night?" (Literally: Is it true that you were there?)

2) Failure to convey proper meaning
Example: "I don't want nothing to eat...leave me alone!" (Literally: I want something to eat.)

3) Useless words
Example "A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field." - Orwell

Well, there you have it. So the next time you can't avoid slipping a double negative into something you've written, take a moment to evaluate what you're doing. If what you're saying can be said more simply with a positive, without the loss of meaning, go for it. Otherwise, know that, just as two wrongs make something very different from a right, it's not impossible to produce with negatives something more than a mere positive could ever provide.

1 comment:

  1. Just an FYI on "GOT MILK?" -
    The American Dairy Association's huge success with it's campaign "Got Milk?" prompted them to expand advertising to Mexico. It was soon brought to their attention that the Spanish translation read "Are you lactating?"


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