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Grammar Lesson: Double Negatives

By — John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Updated on Dec 15, 2010

In mathematics, a negative number times a negative number yields a positive number.

Similarly, in grammar, when two negative words are used (where only one is needed), the negatives cancel each other out, making the idea positive and not negative as intended. In the sentence, "I cannot get no respect from them," the two negative words, cannot and no, cancel each other out. Thus, the sentence is really saying, "I can get respect from them," a far different thought from what seems to be the sentence's original intention. Had the sentence read, "I cannot get respect from them," or "I can get no respect from them," the meaning is quite different from that when both negative words are included in the sentence.

Here is another example of this double negative situation. Notice the different meanings when the negative words are included or deleted.

    Two negative words in the sentence: We didn't have no disappointments.
    One negative word in the sentence: We didn't have disappointments.
    One negative word in the sentence: We had no disappointments.

Activity

Correct these double negative problems. Write the improved version on the line provided.

  1. Linda can't have no friends over tonight.
  2. ______________________________

  3. The nurse doesn't never give bad health advice.
  4. ______________________________

  5. I hadn't noticed nobody in the room.
  6. ______________________________

  7. This pen doesn't have no ink left in it.
  8. ______________________________

  9. After exchanging their presents, my friends didn't do nothing more to celebrate the occasion.
  10. ______________________________

Answers

  1. Linda can have no friends over tonight. or Linda can't have any friends over tonight.
  2. The nurse doesn't ever give bad health advice. or The nurse never gives bad health advice.
  3. I hadn't noticed anybody in the room. or I had noticed nobody in the room.
  4. This pen has no ink left in it. or This pen doesn't have ink left in it.
  5. After exchanging their presents, my friends didn't do anything more to celebrate the occasion. or After exchanging their presents, my friends did nothing more to celebrate the occasion.
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