I ain't got no problem with negative concord. Do you?


I'm not talking about using a construction like that in formal writing, but in your own native variety of English, do you use double negatives? Is my meaning obscured by the presence of a double negative, as Bishop Lowth tried to argue?

3 answers


To directly answer Gerry's question -- in your own native variety of English, do you use double negatives? -- on occasion, yes ...but only in informal conversation amongst my peer group.


My native variety of English is best characterized as rural Central California (my formative years were between the mid-1950s and the mid-1970s). The language history of my birth area was heavily influenced by the original Mid-Atlantic American settlers (1842 on) with a sprinkling of Texas (1850s) and Oklahoma (1930s) immigration waves. Spanish has been a constant influence and German was quite prevalent between 1856 and 1916.


I find I tend to use the double negative in speech as an intensifier -- I suppose the Spanish influence is at play here. It is almost always an intentional usage for me. I seldom "slip" into its use. I never use it in writing, no matter how informal.


As I have aged, I find I use and hear the usage (at least amongst my peer group) less. I suppose that may be due to my location -- a university community in the San Francisco Bay Area -- and my peer circle -- design professionals, academics and teachers, and several professional writers. I suppose our formal writing training makes us less apt to use the double negative in conversation. Still, the usage is not unknown.


I hope this helps.

link edited Jan 16 '13 at 03:22 Jeff Pribyl Grammarly Fellow

Jeff, can you give me an example or two of a 'double negative as an intensifier'? I am just curious. Thanks!

Shawn MooneyJan 16 '13 at 04:53

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I, as well as most people, will use double negatives and slang in speech, but rarely in writing. The point is generally made and understood. Grammar has evolved since the 18th century, as it had before the Bishop's time, and contemporary will be better understood than the archaic. I recently began to read Dracula, and 19th century prose became tedious, and I never finished it.

Some languages consider double negatives proper, but 21st century English doesn't. Most people asking questions here are learning English as a second (or more) language, so the advice is usually aimed at following the rules.

No language uses a double positive to mean a negative.

Yeah, right!

link answered Jan 15 '13 at 16:52 Lewis Neidhardt Grammarly Fellow

Here's the thing I take issue with - You say that "21st century English doesn't [consider double negatives proper]," in the face of me telling you, right here in this forum, that I speak a dialect of English which makes use of negative concord, along with some huge number of other English dialects spanning (to my knowledge) North America and the British isles. I don't know if any other English-speaking communities in Africa, Australia, or the Caribbean make use of the double negative construction, but I wouldn't rule it out. What is this mysterious power that dictates that negative concord is incorrect usage in 21st Century English? Why is it attested in so many varieties of English if it's incorrect? Am I a unicorn?

Rev. Gerry TurnerJan 15 '13 at 16:58

I would imagine that all English speakers use double negatives in casual conversation, usually knowing that is what they are doing. Many others use them without regard to their correctness. The main arbiters of the language (style manuals, dictionaries, etc.) universally agree that they aren't proper. That doesn't mean that this won't or hasn't changed over time, but for now, when people ask for advice on proper English, the advice should be along the lines of currently accepted standards, rather than regional colloquialisms.If someone poses the question, "R u going home? Is this correct?", I'll answer truthfully that it isn't, and point out why.

Lewis NeidhardtJan 15 '13 at 17:22

As a linguistic grammarian, Reverend, I am interested in what dialect of English you speak. What are some of those dialects of huge numbers which make normal use of the double negative? Every dialect of English uses an informal double neg from time to time, but I am hard pressed to find normal usage. Some languages (Spanish, Portuguese) make regular usage of the double neg as an intensifier. I am intrigued by your language background.

TolleyJan 15 '13 at 19:09

I hear the double negative is big in Azalea Springs.

Lewis NeidhardtJan 15 '13 at 20:53

Only with Rusty and Ricky. It's a product of their childhood.

TolleyJan 15 '13 at 22:09

Hi Tolley, I'm happy to answer any questions about usage you might have.

My academic and professional background is in linguistics, my primary research interests are in sociolinguistic variation, discourse and pragmatics, syntax, and semantics. The notion of what some people consider to be correct usage of English is far less interesting or relevant to me than looking at what actually does happen in language, and the structural and social systems which might account for these variations.

I grew up in Northern Ontario, and the vernacular in my own speech community does make regular use of double negative constructions. Right now, I'm doing some work with existing corpora of Canadian English speech, and so far I have found that this usage is attested in several linguistic regions across the country. I also know, from a combination of previous corpus research, exposure to native speakers, and even a cursory glance on Wikipedia that the double negative construction is found in Southern American English, the Great Lakes regional dialect, and American Black Vernacular English. I've also seen it come up in Standard Jamaican English (Not Jamaican Creole, those are two different languages), Cockney, Derby, and Scots varieties.

I have to say that I'm a little surprised that none of these dialects, or any others that use the double negative construction were familiar to you, given your background as a "linguistic grammarian." Where did you learn about "linguistic grammar?"

Again, I want to reiterate that I'm not talking about formal writing, or even the standard varieties that are used institutionally or pedagogically, I'm talking about the language you speak to your family and hometown friends, the idiosyncratic English that belongs to you, not on the pages of a textbook.

Finally, just to address the example you gave using Romance languages, languages like French and Spanish don't simply use negative concord to intensify or emphasize the negative particle in a sentence, they use it because it's grammatically necessary in most varieties. Think of the "ne pas" construction in French - there are some dialects in which single negatives are acceptable usage, but in most dialects, negative concordance is still necessary for grammaticality.

Rev. Gerry TurnerJan 15 '13 at 23:01

Also, I just wanted to add, every dialect of English is informal, formal language is a construction that is rarely based entirely on any one community's idiosyncratic speech (except for maybe the one with the most political power). The example that most readily comes to mind is the French government's continued historical attempts to marginalize languages and dialects that fell outside of standard Parisian. They failed miserably, of course, those dialects are still thriving today, but the Academie Francaise still hobbles along, trying to tell everyone else they're speaking wrong.

Rev. Gerry TurnerJan 15 '13 at 23:09

I ain't gonna side with no one in this epic pissing contest. :)

Shawn MooneyJan 16 '13 at 00:19

Hey, Rev. I am quite familiar with many of the dialects in the States that use the double neg. From your natural syntax I wondered if you were from the Great White North. Canadian English takes much of its own discourse from French, I know, but it is lost on me. My training is in Linguistic Grammar and Organizational Communication from U of New Mexico, so I am not so familiar with your northern dialects. The American English forms that I am most familiar with are the pidgins of the coastal islands of the east coast (the Hoi-Toiders are fun) and then the true creoles Louisiana and Mississippi. I spent a bit of time in Mexico with several dying languages in the Metzlcuatl tribal family, which, interestingly enough to linguistic geeks like us, uses the neg/neg/neutral as normal syntax. My main research interest from my post grad days was grammatical systems evolution post-exposure to Spanish. I have drifted away from linguistic theory and research over the last few years, but I still very much enjoy looking at language in this way. By the way, Shawn, this is not a pissing contest. There are few people out there who study language the way Rev does. My academic roots fascinate me still.

TolleyJan 16 '13 at 01:26

I have to say, as a descriptivist I feel like a bit of a rare mythological creature here, which I should have probably predicted, given the subject matter of the website. It used to be the case that prescriptivism was given some amount of consideration within the field of linguistics, but things have changed a lot, even in the last 20-30 years. People aren't really interested in the idea of correct usage, especially with regard to forms that are well-known in nonstandard varieties. Of course, formal writing is still formal writing, and academic papers and books still follow many of the conventions set within that genre of discourse, but it's recognized as a specific register of English, and not one that sees typical use outside of professional writing.

Indigenous language and culture preservation is one thing that really drew me to sociolinguistics, particularly the pressures that communities face when trying to sustain or rejuvenate their language in the face of centuries of colonialism. I'm not familiar with Metzlcuatl languages, are they Mixtec people? If so, the Spanish linguistic and cultural influence makes a lot of sense.

North Carolina's hightiders don't speak a pidgin language in the strictest sense - usually we think of pidgin languages as ones that have undergone a huge amount of restructuring and loss of grammatical features as a result of several unrelated languages in contact. North Carolina's coastal townships have just been a little more conservative with their language than other places throughout the US. The phonology of the high tider dialect is probably very similar to what was spoken in some parts of England, some 500 years ago.

Linguistics is probably a relatively small discipline in academia, especially when compared with the more profitable areas, such as the natural sciences. Interestingly enough, although we use the scientific method, hypothesis testing, empirical research, statistical analysis, linguistics has been relegated to the arts, which probably accounts for at least some of its lack of exposure (one of the first questions I always get is "How many languages do you speak?")

Rev. Gerry TurnerJan 16 '13 at 03:38

Underneath the surface, we may not be a prescriptivist as you might think. Many of the questions posted here come from ESL students. Prescriptive answers are often the best and only answer one can give to these students. Without knowing more about the questioner, we tend, as Lewis did, to fall into the default mode. Personally, I tend to favor the stance taken by Garner's Modern American Usage -- that there is a spectrum of usage ranging from universally acceptable usage at one end to generally unacceptable usage at the other, and the spectrum shifts over time and with place.

Jeff PribylJan 16 '13 at 04:33

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I find it can be helpful in creating distinct dialogue between characters if one does, and the other does not. It allows me to use fewer dialogue tags when a reader knows that Jim-Bob says, "I ain't got no..." while Mr. Anderson says, "I would never..."


But then again, I'm a fiction writer, and character is character.

link comment answered Jan 19 '13 at 05:17 Tony Proano Expert

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