Super Grammar: Double Negative

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Double Negative

They say that two negatives equal a positive—and this is true—but these two naysayers equal nothing but trouble for your sentences.  They are the Double Negative Team, and these two troublesome twins are always trying to trick you into making a gigantic grammar mistake.
One negative word in a sentence is fine, but if the Double Negative Team gets you to use two negative words in the same sentence then they’ve succeeded in tricking you into saying the exact opposite of what you mean. 

For example, if you want to say that you are not a villain, you can make a sentence that says, “I’m no villain.”  This sentence lets everyone know, very clearly, that you are not a villain.  Notice that this sentence only has one negative word: no

Now, let’s add a second negative word to the same sentence, “I’m not no villain.” It might sound like you’re saying that you’re not a villain, but the second negative word changes the sentence (and its meaning) into the opposite of what you wanted to say.  If you’re not no villain, then you must be a villain.

no villain = no villain              not no villain = yes villain

It’s a very sneaky trick, and it’s not always easy to catch, especially if you’re not prepared for it.  So, learn to recognize negative words, and the next time you see two of them in the same sentence—think twice.  It just might be the Double Negative Team trying to trick you with their double dealing double talk!

By tricking you into using two negative words in the same sentence, The Double Negative Team has the power to make you say the exact opposite of what you mean.

You’re not no superhero.

Double negative: if you’re not no superhero, then you must be a superhero

You’re not a superhero.

Fixed: by removing the second negative, no

You can’t never stop me.

Double negative: if you can’t never stop me, then you can stop me

You can’t stop me.

Fixed: by removing the second negative, never

I don’t want nobody to get hurt.

Double negative: if you don’t want nobody to get hurt, then you must want somebody to get hurt

I don’t want anybody to get hurt.

Fixed: by changing the second negative word, nobody, into a positive word, anybody

I don’t know nothing about a robbery.

Double negative: (if you don’t know nothing about a robbery, then you must know something about a robbery

I don’t know anything about a robbery.

Fixed: by changing the second negative word, nothing, into a positive word, anything

*Grab this Double Negative lesson plan and worksheets for free!
Available at our Teachers Pay Teachers STORE!

Learn to recognize negative words and always watch out for more than one negative word in a sentence.  If you can do that, you’ll always win against the Double Negative Team. 

And remember:


No, not, never, none, nothing, no-one, nobody, nowhere, neither, don’t, can’t, cannot, won’t,  wouldn’t, shouldn’t, couldn’t, isn’t, wasn’t—these are all negative words. 

Negative words are simply the opposite of positive words (yes, is, can, do, always…).

Negative words, on their own, are not bad or evil; in fact, you can use negative words to help you say a lot of very positive and useful things, like “No swimming in the piranha tank.”, “Don’t forget to fight crime today.” and “Never surrender without a fight!”  Without negative words, we couldn’t say any of these things, and that would, very positively, be a shame.

Don’t let their ominous looking name mislead you. Negative words—like positive words—are only here to help our sentences communicate as clearly as possible.  So, don’t stop using negative words; just make sure that you use them in a positive way!
Here's a peek at an early concept drawings for Double Negative.  This sketch turned into the inspiration for the final look of the troublesome twin brothers.


  1. What about the idea that double negatives were introduced by linguists who wanted language to be more like math? Double negatives are used by many people, and are perfectly understandable. Even Chaucer used them!

  2. Double negatives were not introduced by linguists. The kind of double negative that this article is talking about, where two negatives reinforce each other, has always been part of English. It's found in Old English writing, Chaucer, and Shakespeare. It fell out of use in standard English in the 18th century, but has continued in many dialects until today. The prescriptive rule that there is something wrong with it arose in the 18th century.

    He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde
    In al his lyf unto no maner wight - Chaucer, General Prologue, Canterbury Tales

    And that no woman has; nor never none
    Shall mistress be of it - Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

  3. Felderburg and goofy,

    It’s always interesting how the rules related to English grammar can change over short spans of time from being acceptable to being unacceptable, isn’t it? I guess that’s part of the fun that comes along with studying grammar. In any case, here are a couple reasons explaining why we’ve including the Double Negative team as part of Super Grammar:

    1) One of our goals with Super Grammar is to help kids in school with their formal English writing. Currently, double negatives are greatly looked upon as incorrect usage within the school system, so we thought it best to teach the rule as it is being taught in the school system.

    2) Another one of our goals with Super Grammar is to help kids grasp difficult concepts related to grammar. Double negatives (when heard in a sentence) may be easy to understand—but the concept of a double negative (two negatives canceling each other out) is not always as easy to grasp, especially for young kids. Our hope is that we’re not just teaching the rule, but that we’re also doing a fair job of explaining the concept behind the rule.

    Thanks for taking the time to write us a comment. We hope that you’re having fun with all the rest of our Super Grammar characters.

    The Super Grammar Team

  4. In Standard English, negatives are multiplicative: two negatives equal a positive. But in dialects that use negative concord, negatives are additive: two negatives equal a negative.

  5. I speak a Germanic language not a Latin based language and in Germanic languages Double-negatives are used as emphasizers. I think they are okay for verbal language but don't work written down.

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  7. when should children have an understanding of double negatives?

  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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