We can blame the Rolling Stones for teaching us that we “can’t get no satisfaction,” and Bob Dylan for writing the very catchy “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.” Those double negatives, and their variants, are ubiquitous in popular usage. Their use sometimes forces you to stop and puzzle out the positive meaning, which is never fun.
- “She didn’t want me to not do it.”
- Don’t give me no nonsense.
A double negative can be a simple intensifier, as in “We didn’t do nothing on Saturday,” or as a substitute for any or anything. We emphasize the word nothing to make it stronger. If you were to tell someone, “I don’t not want you to ask me on a date,” the sentence is just plain passive-aggressive (and unlikely to win you a date). Look at how difficult it is to know what that first example is communicating! The proper form is much easier to understand: “She wanted me to do it.”
MORE TO KNOW
There are situations and needs that make a double negative useful. Because we often imagine that two wrongs do make a right, using two negatives can sometimes result in a positive, and the spoken emphasis makes that clear: I didn’t not want that muffin. Sometimes the double negative serves a purpose in dramatically emphasizing a point. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and friends arrive at the Emerald City, where they are memorably greeted with a shouted “Not nobody ! Not no how !” and a slamming window.