May 22, 2023
6 min read
Sometime in school, you might’ve learned that double negatives are examples of incorrect grammar. However, just because they’re often considered grammatically incorrect doesn’t make them useless. In fact, they can be pretty common.
In our ultimate guide on double negatives, learn what they are, how to recognize them, examples, and whether or not it’s OK to use them.
A double negative refers to two negative words in a sentence. When you use a double negative, you actually end up expressing the opposite meaning of what you intended.
This can happen in nearly any language, but it’s pretty common in American and British English (as well as other dialects).
For example, double negatives are used often in dialects like African American Vernacular English (AAVE) or Southern American English. So, just because they’re not “grammatically correct” according to American English standards, that doesn’t change the fact that they’re commonly used and useful.
In other languages though, they aren’t always considered incorrect. Take Spanish, for example. If you’re saying “there isn’t a problem,” and you say, “No hay ningún problema,” that’s a double negative (e.i., no hay ningún problema). But in this case, that’s completely correct and a normal thing to say.
Even though in English, double negatives are considered “bad grammar,” lots of people still use them, unintentionally and intentionally.
A negative word isn’t very complex. It’s a word that conveys a disagreement or a rejection of a concept. So, for example, when you’re trying to express opposition to something, you really only need one negative word, not two.
There are lots of negative participles. Common negative participles including words like:
On the other hand, there are also lots of negative verbs to be aware of so you can recognize them. That includes words like:
Although it’s not necessarily a crime to use a double negative, it’s considered incorrect grammar. However, there are a few exceptions considered fair play when you’re speaking.
For example, if the negative adjective is preceded by the word “not.” You’ve probably heard someone use the phrase, “it’s not uncommon to…” or “it’s not unusual for…” and in both instances, they’re generally acceptable.
Another exception would be when the speaker is trying to emphasize the positive part. If someone were to say, “You can’t not go to prom,” they’re emphasizing how important it is to go to prom.
There are tons of examples of double negatives. Being able to identify these examples in everyday speech can help you avoid them in the future.
One common example is a sentence like, “I haven’t seen nobody.” If you think about the meaning conveyed, that you have not seen nobody, then that must mean you have seen somebody. So to combat this, it would be better to say something like, “I haven’t seen anyone.” That way you only have one negative instead of two: “have not.”
Here’s another example. In movies, sometimes the protagonist who doubts they’re in love will say something like, “Well, she’s not unattractive” — a roundabout way of saying the woman in question is attractive since the double negatives cancel each other out.
Just to solidify the concept, see if you can recognize why all of these are double negatives:
In the music industry, using double negatives is pretty common. For example, you might be familiar with the 1971 hit from Bill Withers, “Ain’t No Sunshine.”
Other songs that employ the double negative include songs like:
It’s a popular trope in television to use double negatives — even multiple instances in the same line — for comedic effect.
Perhaps one of the best examples of this concept in film is in the movie, “Shrek the Third.” When the character Prince Charming presses Pinnochio, asking if he knows where Shrek is, Pinnochio responds in a series of double negatives. “It wouldn’t be inaccurate to assume that I couldn’t exactly not say that it is or isn’t almost partially incorrect,” he tells Prince Charming during their conversation.
In this scene, they’re used both as a plot device (since Pinnochio is trying to purposely trick Prince Charming) and as a comedy bit. You can check out the referenced scene below:
Either way, once you start learning about double negatives, you’ll start seeing them everywhere.
The key to avoiding double negatives is first being able to recognize them. Once you have that down, you can practice not using them.
For example, you can use a free speech coach like Yoodli to practice speaking and catch those double negatives, especially if you’ve made a habit out of using them. Yoodli automatically analyzes your speech to provide you with metrics like your speaking pace, your body language, and even the content of what you’re saying.
You can also identify double negatives easily in your speech since Yooldi provides a full transcript of what you said.
For example, if your speech sounds too monotonic, Yoodli might give you suggestions through coaching comments on how to mitigate that. Or, if you tend to talk too fast, Yoodli might recommend taking natural pauses to slow down.
Either way, practicing identifying double negatives will be the first, most critical step for eliminating these from your vernacular.
Avoiding double negatives is important because it can convey the opposite meaning of what you intended to say.
Plus, there’s a negative connotation to using double negatives. In English-speaking countries, people tend to judge others using double negatives as uneducated and illiterate. Considering a little English speaking practice can make a world of difference.
Still, if someone’s using a certain dialect like AAVE for example, using double negatives is completely normal to convey a message.
A double negative isn’t the worst mistake, but this grammar fluke can distort the meaning of your sentence and confuse others, depending on the situation.
By practicing through an AI coach like Yoodli — or by working on improving your comfort level with English, if you’re a non-native English speaker looking to improve — you can dispel the habit of using double negatives from your daily speech. It can take some time to break a habit though, so be patient with yourself.
Getting better at speaking is getting easier. Record or upload a speech and let our AI Speech Coach analyze your speaking and give you feedback.