While the rest of the UK holds its head in despair at another feeble showing in The Eurovision Song Contest, I can tell you exactly where Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Believe In Me’ went wrong:

‘You come and you go and there’s never no compromise, that’s why
The seconds and the minutes of your life go crawling by’

Shudder!  The song may have been dreary and Bonnie’s voice clearly missed the flight to Malmo, but it’s the double negative ‘never no’ that killed it, I tell you.

What is a double negative?

Double negatives occur where two negative words are used in the same clause, and cancel each other out to make a positive. Thus Mick Jagger is clearly a very contented man because if he “can’t get no satisfaction” then logically, he can get it.  Hurrah.

Double negatives don’t cause the same problem in many other languages, where two parts to a negative statement serve to intensify the meaning.  They used to be common in English until the 1700s; you can find them peppered throughout Chaucer and Shakespeare.  Nowadays, however, they are not part of standard English.

Using double negatives deliberately

Double negatives often turn up in pop songs, sometimes to give them a colloquial tone, such as Pink Floyd’s children protesting they don’t need no education. They are used in fiction for characterisation, such as the rapist Alfonso’s triple negative words – ‘You better not never tell nobody but God’ – opening Alice Walker’s book, The Color Purple.  The rest of Bonnie’s song isn’t in dialect, however, so I presume this ‘no’ was added merely to aid the scanning.  Sloppy work. Nul points.

How to say what you don’t mean – or maybe you do!

Double negatives can be lots of fun. The title to this post is a treble negative, meaning the negation is present, cancelled, and then reinstated. So:

  • Don’t use double negatives – a simple and clear negative instruction.
  • Don’t use no double negatives – contradicting that simple instruction.
  • Don’t never use no double negatives –  Yikes!  Never use no = always use. But then, it says don’t never use no, which must mean don’t always use. . . so this is back to a positive statement.

I hope you are following this, because I’m lost.  Stick with the simple statement!

Double negatives can be a very subtle way of damning with faint praise: ‘She was not an uninteresting person’ means she was interesting – but not enough to use the actual word!  ‘It was not an unpleasant evening’ means it was . . . ok.  This technique is called litotes, using understatement or denial to strengthen a statement.

If you are interested you can read more about double negatives in other languages, and there is a fun little game on double negatives from the BBC.

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Joanna is a freelancer copywriter and web content creator, who doesn’t specialise in no SEO.  Don’t never click on this link to chat to her on Google+