Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt
There’s an old saying: Two wrongs don’t make a right. The idea is (for example) if your neighbor wrongs you by borrowing your hedge clippers and forgets to return them, it doesn’t make things better to send a large, unwanted pizza delivery to his house so he has to pay for it. Those two negatives don’t make a positive. Also, it kind of makes you a jerk.
In English, two negatives actually do make a positive. Most of the time people don’t realize that using a double negative (also known as a negative concord) in a sentence implies the exact opposite of the speaker’s intention, technically speaking.
For instance: I don’t got no time for that. The person saying this probably means that they don’t have time for whatever “that” is, but by using “don’t” and “no” in the same sentence, these negative words cancel each other out to imply that the speaker does, in fact, have time for “that.” In the same way, saying, “He’s not going nowhere” implies that he is actually going somewhere. It’s kind of confusing, and, to be quite honest, it’s bad grammar. A nice way of saying this is the usage of double negatives in speech or writing is broadly considered nonstandard English.
Now it’s time to introduce some complicating factors into the mix (like when, for instance, your neighbor spots you hiding in the bushes and spying on him while he deals with the unwanted pizza delivery). In many other languages (including Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Italian and Polish), double negatives are commonly used to intensify the implied negation. The two negatives create a snowball effect in the sentence, creating an emphatic, super negative.
Not only that, but certain dialects of American English employ double negatives in their vernacular to the same effect as the foreign languages I listed above. I suppose if you’re with a group of people who all understand what you mean when you use a double negative, then it’s acceptable, almost like special house rules in poker. However, in more formal settings, double negatives should be avoided. When it comes to more buttoned-up situations (especially in important scenarios like job interviews and reciting wedding vows), you should avoid double negatives. After all, I think we could all benefit from a healthy dose of positivity.
Curtis Honeycutt is a nationally syndicated humor columnist. Connect with him on Twitter (@curtishoneycutt) or at curtishoneycutt.com.