Definition of double negative in English:

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double negative

Pronunciation: /ˈdəbəl ˈneɡədiv/


1A negative statement containing two negative elements (for example didn’t say nothing).
Example sentences
  • In some English dialects, after all, a double negative reinforces a negative, it doesn't negate it.
  • As a result, reminders to offenders have often been couched in such terms as: Mind your grammar - no double negatives!
  • Ain't wasn't a problem; double negatives didn't trouble me; ‘we gotta go’ and the like were fine.
1.1A positive statement in which two negative elements are used to produce the positive force, usually for some particular rhetorical effect (for example there is not nothing to worry about!).
Example sentences
  • Now, my Lord, what I would say is if this sentence has a double negative in it, ‘are not incompatible’, my friend would be content or would have to be content.
  • The obvious difference is here the use of a double negative; not ‘every single note in my version is by Mendelssohn’, but ‘Not a note is not by Mendelssohn’.
  • He, who is master of the double negative, does admit, however: ‘I would not say that individuals are not trying to make connections to radical groups, but in my experience, that would be an extreme minority.’


According to standard English grammar, a double negative used to express a single negative, such as I don’t know nothing (rather than I don’t know anything), is incorrect. The rules dictate that the two negative elements cancel each other out to give an affirmative statement, so that, logically, I don’t know nothing means I know something. In practice, this sort of double negative is widespread in dialect and nonstandard usage and rarely causes confusion about the intended meaning. Double negatives are standard in other languages such as Spanish and Polish, and they have not always been unacceptable in English. They were normal in Old English and Middle English and did not come to be frowned upon until some time after the 16th century. The double negative can be used in speech or in written dialogue for emphasis or other rhetorical effects. Such constructions as ‘has not gone unnoticed’ or ‘not wholly unpersuasive’ may be useful for making a point through understatement, but the double negative should be used judiciously because it may cause confusion or annoy the reader.

For editors and proofreaders

Syllabification: dou·ble neg·a·tive

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