Note: Few skills are more important than the ability to write clearly and elegantly. With that in mind, this is another post explaining some of the more curious aspects of the English language. And so...

Putting aside politics for a second (as far as that's possible when discussing the POTUS), Donald Trump's recent assertion that a "double negative" is the same as a "positive" isn't entirely incorrect. His exact words:

"In a key sentence in my remarks, I said the word would instead of wouldn't. The sentence should have been, 'I don't see any reason why I wouldn't or why it wouldn't be Russia'... sort of a double negative."

Trump's belated correction was publicly criticized on the basis that double negatives are ungrammatical. Not true! Double negatives, when used correctly, are a subtly expressive part of the English language.

The correct use of a double negative is when the speaker or writer wants to communicate a "weak positive" that includes the possibility of doubt, just as I did in the title of this post. For example:

  • That is correct. (strong positive)
  • That is incorrect. (strong negative)
  • That is not incorrect. (double negative = weak positive)

The weak positive, in that case, implies that Trump's assertion (as far as it went) was partially correct but did not accurate represent the entire complexity of the double negative as an English grammatical construct.

BTW, Trump is not the only POTUS to use a double negative although (as far as I know) he's the only one to use one in a retroactive edit. This from an Obama speech on foreign policy:

  • "But that time is not unlimited."

In addition to the weak positive usage described above, a double negative can be used to intensify the negative. For example:

  • I am satisfied. (strong positive)
  • I am dissatisfied (strong negative)
  • I am not dissatisfied. (weak positive)
  • I can't get no satisfaction. (double negative = intensified negative)

The problem with this use of the double negative is that it makes the speaker or writer sound or seem uneducated. There is, however, an important exception: when it's being used ironically.

For example, when Mick Jagger wrote "I can't get no satisfaction" in the song Satisfaction he was almost undoubtedly being ironic rather than exhibiting grammatical ignorance. Having been, as a lad, an undergraduate at the London School of Economics, Jagger was and is not uneducated.

Among essential English sources that use the double negative is the King James Bible. For that matter, no less an authority than Shakespeare used a triple negative to indicate an intense negative:

  • "I never was nor never will be." (Richard III, Act 4, Scene 4)

Nevertheless, though it's not technically ungrammatical, the intensive negative use of the double negative should be limited to situations where you've already established your grammatical cred and then only when writing casually, as in a blog.

But then maybe I don't know for nothing. Use your own judgment.

Published on: Jul 22, 2018
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