Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage

Positively negative

Q: Though it sounds quite stilted, the double negative is often used in medicine to be more precise. I hate the sound of “non-inferiority,” but it’s useful to describe a statistical result that’s not necessarily superior. It’s often seen in the oncology literature to describe results of clinical trials—inelegant but necessary.

A: We agree with you about the usefulness of double negatives. But if we were writing about a clinical trial on our blog, we’d skip the jargon and use a longer, simpler, and equally precise phrasing.

In describing a non-inferiority trial, for example, we might say it shows that a new robotic treatment for prostate cancer is equivalent to, but no better than, the standard robotic procedure.

Getting back to double negatives, they can be quite expressive and somehow “just right” in all sorts of writing.

For example, a woman’s style of dressing might be described as “eccentric, but not inelegant.” Calling something “elegant” is very different from calling it “not inelegant.”

To use another example, an odd sensation or an unusual-tasting spice might be described as “a bit startling, but not unpleasant.” Again, “pleasant” and “not unpleasant” are worlds apart.

Blanket prohibitions against the use of the double negative are misguided, to put it kindly. We’ve written before on our blog about this subject, including posts in 2007 and 2008.

In Pat’s grammar and usage book Woe Is I, she says a double negative can be “handy when you want to avoid coming right out and saying something: Your blind date is not unattractive. I wouldn’t say I don’t like your new haircut.

We go a little deeper into the subject in our book Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language:

“There’s nothing wrong with using two negatives together to say something positive (‘I can’t not buy these Ferragamos’) or to straddle the fence (‘He’s not unintelligent’). So anybody who says all double negatives are bad is badly informed. The only double negative that’s a no-no is one that uses two negatives to say something negative (‘I didn’t see nothing!’). Modern grammarians regard this usage as substandard, insisting on only one negative element in a simple negative statement (‘I didn’t see anything’ or ‘I saw nothing’).

“But why outlaw any kind of double negative? What’s wrong with ‘I didn’t see nothing’?”

As we go on to explain, such a statement “would be correct in French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Russian, and other languages. And it used to be commonplace in English, too, as a way to accentuate the negative.”

Chaucer, for instance, uses double, triple, and even quadruple negatives in The Canterbury Tales. Here’s how he describes the Friar: “Ther nas no man no-wher so vertuous,” or as one would say today, “There wasn’t no man nowhere so virtuous.”

We say in Origins of the Specious that it “wasn’t until the eighteenth century that a sentence like ‘I didn’t see nothing’ was pronounced a crime against English.”

“If ever a prohibition had staying power, this one did,” we write. “By the time Dickens came along, only a poorly educated person, like Peggotty in David Copperfield, would say, ‘Nobody never went and hinted no such a thing.’ Many linguists argue that there’s nothing wrong with speaking like Peggotty today.”

But, as we add, we don’t hear no linguists saying nothing like that. Why? Because no PhD wants to sound like a high school dropout.

Our advice? “Don’t use two negatives to say something negative (‘You never take me nowhere’), but go ahead when you want to be emphatic (‘We can’t not go home for Thanksgiving’) or wishy-washy (‘Mom’s mince pie is not unappetizing’).”

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