Word Nerd: The Mathematics of Grammar
3 years ago
Well I ain't never, I ain't never
Seen nobody like you no, no, no;
Never have I ever seen nobody like you.
“I Ain’t Never,” Mel Tillis
Hola wordies! It’s my birthday today!
So let’s talk about an old saw in the world of pedantry: the double negative.
It’s an easy target, really: “I never done nothing!” says an English speaker. “Ho, ho,” says the pedant, sipping his brandy.* “In that case, you must have done something! Because, you see, if you’ve never done nothing, then you’ve always done something.”
And in a just and fair world, the pedant would immediately step on a rake and receive a concussion from the handle, but sometimes God just isn’t on our side.
So let’s look at this. Is it a thing? Can you not use two negatives for emphasis? Do they always cancel each other out? Is this the ancient and inviolable truth of English?†
Ha-ha, of course not! Old and Middle English were perfectly happy using double negatives. In Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, describing the remarkable gentilesse of the Knight, the poet says he “nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde in all his lyf unto no maner wight” (that is, “he didn’t never say nothing malicious about no manner of person in his whole life”), a whopping quadruple negative. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Viola (masquerading as Cesario) swears she has “one heart, one bosom, and one truth, and that no woman has, nor never none shall mistress be of it, save I alone.”‡
It isn’t limited to sentence structure, either! As I mentioned before, a delightful quirk of English word construction adds the negative prefix dis- (as in disconnect or disarray) to words that already have a negative sense, with much the same effect; thus, both annul and disannul mean “to cancel or reverse,” avow and disavow mean “to formally reject,” and embowel and disembowel mean “to eviscerate.” It’s a double negative in one word!
In general, this device is called negative concord, and is a rule in any number of languages around the world, including Portuguese, Russian, Italian and, for most of its history, English. And it’s a great device! It’s definite, emphatic: I will NOT – NEVER – do NOTHING like that. Bam! No-one’s coming away from that with any sort of ambiguity.
So what happened? Why did we change?
Enter the Grammarians
Would it surprise you to learn it was the eighteenth-century grammarians?
The earliest mention we can find of the new rule is by a schoolmaster and grammarian called James Greenwood, in whose An Essay towards a practical English Grammar, Describing the Genius and Nature of the English Tongue (1711) he insisted “Two Negatives, or two Adverbs of Denying do in English affirm.” He was echoed by noted and prolific pain-in-the-ass Bishop Robert Lowth in 1763, fairly dramatically suggesting that two negatives “destroy one another.” Many of their peers took up the cry, and entering into the modern age it had become an agreed rule of formal English.
Why? Well, Latin, as usual, which does not allow negative concord (nor does German, for some reason). It may also have appealed to their sense of logic; as the middle class was becoming more literate (driving, among other things, the boom in English grammars), they were also becoming more educated, and would have been familiar with mathematical concepts such as the rule that the product of two negatives is positive.** Instead, they proposed using positive qualifiers – such as ever, anyone, at all, and the like – to emphasise a negative term, much as multiplying a small negative by a large positive generates a large negative.
And, of course, it’s not all bad. If, as Lowth insisted, two negatives “are equivalent to an affirmative,” then they allow a sort of nuance. Aside from standard and emphatic negatives and affirmatives, we have the cancelled negative, or litotes: consider the self-effacing “I’m not bad,” for instance, or “he’s not unattractive.” It’s a technique that can rest comfortably alongside negative concord without confusion; even in the Old English Beowulf, we read that “Né húru Hildeburh herian þorfte eotena tréowe” (that is, “Truly, Hildeburh did not have need to praise the good faith of the Jutes”), since, it seems, the Jutes had slaughtered her son and brother. Even using Greenwood’s and Lowth’s rules, we can play with language, using double negatives for understatement or irony – two of the English language’s favourite games.
The Agreeing No
But is this end of it? Not at all! English is finding new ways to combine negatives and positives all the time, and a lot of them don’t even have fancy Latinate names yet.
Like the controversial “agreeing no,” a construction that seems to have turned up in the last fifteen years or so, possibly in Australia. Using a negative to agree with a negative (eg. “There’s no need to kill him,” “No, there isn’t, but I might anyway”) is fairly standard, but for the past few years, it’s become more common to use a negative to agree with an affirmative.
Mixed and confusing though it may seem, something like “Yeah, no, you’re right” or “No, I agree” or “Yes, no, absolutely” serves as definite, even emphatic agreement. The role of the negative here seems to be to both raise and dismiss an imagined counterpoint; consider the following exchange:
“The growing diversity in SF and fantasy is great for the genre.”
“No, you’re absolutely right.”
The second speaker is saying something like, “Quite! Some may complain about tokenism or ‘reverse discrimination,’ but no, you’re absolutely right,” but simply excising the counterpoint altogether. The “no” is acknowledging its existence but dismissing it from the conversation at the same time.
(On the other hand, there’s also a sarcastic “Yeah... no,” given in answer to a request or proposal, which seems to mean, “Yeah, this is me pretending to think about this, but no. Don’t be silly.” Which is really remarkably satisfying.)
Are we done yet? Maybe not. You know that joke about the English teacher that says, “Two negatives make a positive, but two positives never make a negative,” and the kid in the back row says, “Yeah, right”?
Sure, it’s a joke, and the sarcastic irony in the popular “yeah, right” form is obvious – doubling the positive is apparently intended to emphasise the irony rather than reverse the sense – but this is an enduring construction (remember “shyeah, right” from 1992’s Wayne’s World?), with no small amount of variation, including okay, yeah and yeah, sure and so on.
Has the ironic double-positive become a new grammatical rule? Possibly. Certainly it seems necessary to double the positive; you don’t get quite the same effect from a single positive, however sarcastically you say it. I expect grammarians of this century to identify and label the ironic double positive and the agreeing no, and to net PhDs and careers out of stuff like this. In the meantime, we can just enjoy playing with the rules as we get along, and not trouble ourselves too much with the mathematics of grammar.
*Pedants always have smug brandy to hand.
†I mean, obviously not, but let’s have a hint of suspense, here.
‡Leaving out the double negative, there’s a neat little play with “no mistress... save I,” where she’s basically hinting at the disguise. Get it? Huh? Applaud, dammit! THIS IS SHAKESPEARE BEING CLEVER.
**Although as the Merriem-Webster pointed out in 1994, the sum of two negatives is a larger negative. Apparently either eighteenth century grammarians thought grammar should act more like multiplication than addition, or just didn’t notice that Lowth pulled a bit of a fast one, there.