Multiple negation? I ain’t never heard nothing about that!
“Two negatives make a positive,” your friend may primly reply to such a statement. Even if you’re not exactly fond of math, you surely remember enough to acknowledge the wisdom and veracity of such sound logic.
But the funny thing about languages? They have a logic all their own, and it doesn’t always play by the same rules as our conscious minds.
Take, for example, this phenomenon of the double negative. Like the other formal, prescriptive rules we’ve been exploring with this series, the distaste for double negatives is relatively new to English.
Back in Old and Middle English (roughly AD 1000-1450), English wasn’t particularly fussed about multiple elements of negation in a sentence. If anything, they were used for emphasis, to drive home the negation. This trick of negatives supporting each other (rather than canceling each other out) is called negative concord. Far from being frowned upon, some languages crave it. Spanish, for example, regularly crams several negation words into a single sentence without a second thought:
¡No toques nada!
‘Don’t touch anything!’
This isn’t merely the preferred method of negation. In languages like Spanish and French, negative concord isn’t for emphasis; it’s mandatory. That’s just how they express negation.
The idea that two negatives grammatically make a positive in English was first recorded in the 1700s along with most of the other prescriptive rules. Unlike the other rules, there is some evidence to suggest that negative concord was naturally beginning to disappear in mainstream varieties of English even before the early grammarians codified the rule. This really isn’t too surprising. Languages like to change, and among the other moving parts they scramble around, they commonly go through phases of double negation (we linguists know this as Jespersen’s Cycle).
Math has naught to do with language, but it’s certainly true that in our Modern English, double negatives have the potential to leave a lot of ambiguity. Do they cancel? Do they intensify each other? It’s all about that context. This is one rule that might be here to stay1 (at least in formal English).
1 At least for now!