What are “Double Negatives”?
In standard English, a double negative is when a sentence contains two negative words to emphasize denial or opposition. They should be avoided in formal writing because they can make your writing unclear.
- I didn’t do nothing.
It’s important to keep in mind that there are many languages and even English dialects in which double negatives are grammatically correct.
Using Double Negatives in English
A double negative is when a sentence contains two negative expressions. Although they’re acceptable when you’re singing “I can’t get no satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones, they should not be used in formal settings.
Negative words express opposition to an idea or action, and while the use of one is sufficient, two can cause confusion.
|Negative Particles||Negative Verb Forms|
|No||Doesn’t (does not)|
|Not||Isn’t (is not)|
|Never||Wasn’t (was not)|
|Nowhere||Don’t (do not)|
|Nobody||Shouldn’t (should not)|
|None||Wouldn’t (would not)|
|Neither||Couldn’t (could not)|
If your friend asks you to go to a concert, and you answer with a double negative, he’ll probably be puzzled and end up going without you.
I don’t not want to go to the concert with you.
I do want to go to the concert with you.
After meeting her, he didn’t want nothing to do with the band.
After meeting her, he didn’t want anything to do with the band.
Double negatives make your readers have to stop and think about what you’re trying to convey. So, if you want your writing to be easy to comprehend, avoid using two negative words in one sentence.
Double Negative Examples
Below, you’ll find a few more examples of sentences with double negatives.
I didn’t want nothing to do with her.
She didn’t go nowhere.
You can’t prove nothing.
Timothy doesn’t never call me.
I can’t find my purse nowhere.
Double Negatives: When Are They Okay To Use?
In math, a negative multiplied by a negative equals a positive. However, that isn’t always the case in formal writing. Most of the time, double negatives improperly reinforce the negative.
I don't want no dressing on my salad, please. =
I don’t want any dressing on my salad, please.
Although it’s best to play it safe and avoid double negatives, there is an exception to this rule: when the word not is in front of a negative adjective.
It’s not uncommon for those types of things to happen =
It is common for those types of things to happen.
Well-known musician, Tom Jones, understood this when he sang one of his most famous hits.
It’s not unusual to be loved by anyone. It’s not unusual to have fun with anyone.
Additionally, in informal settings, a double negative can be used to emphasize the positive. For example:
You can’t not go to their party. =
You absolutely must go to their party.
It’s Important To Note
There are many languages in which double negatives are grammatically correct. In fact, there are also English dialects that commonly use double negatives.
Double Negatives: How To Avoid Them
Remember, when writing in standard American English, two negatives in a sentence make your writing grammatically incorrect and therefore hard to understand. Unless you’re purposely trying to be cryptic (or you’re writing a hit song), it’s best to avoid double negatives while writing.
LanguageTool—an intelligent writing assistant that supports 30+ languages and dialects—can detect double negatives in your writing and offers suggestions on how to fix them. But don’t worry if you typically write using double negatives—you can always turn off the rule. LanguageTool goes beyond correcting errors by also suggesting stylistic improvements and helping rephrase your sentences. Check it out!