Two Negatives Don’t Always Add Up: A look at NOT + UN-, ANTI-, NON-
Language is not always logical. Unlike in math, for example, two negatives do not make a positive. A well-known point of English grammar is the double negative. In this case, a speaker of a non-standard dialect might say, “We don’t want none of that.” What she means is not “We want some of that.” Instead, the speaker could be emphasizing the negation (really don’t want!). A second possibility is that “don’t” is simply matching the negation of “none” in the same way that, for example, a Portuguese speaker might (grammatically) say, “Não queremos nenhum.” Many Romance languages operate this way. (To reiterate, the above double negative is not formal, standard English.)
A more interesting kind of dual negative in English occurs with not + a negative prefix (like un-, dis-, or anti-). This construction is important to express a feeling that the speaker is not shutting off the possibility for agreement. However, the situation is not black or white (yes or no) but rather lies somewhere in between. Take, for example, the following sentence.
- His firing was not unexpected.
This means people were not surprised by the firing. No one knew for sure that he would be fired, but there was enough history or evidence to say it was a possibility. On the scale between Expected and Unexpected, the reality lay someplace in the middle.
Below are some more examples of this middle-ground sentiment expressed with two negatives.
To raise your level of speaking sophistication, start practicing this kind of expression in your daily speech. Below are some real-world examples. Note that the dual negative is often followed by “but.”
- The move by the Board of Directors is not illegal, but it will raise some eyebrows.
- She’s not unwilling to help, but she’d rather you asked George first.
- I wouldn’t say we’re not in agreement, but we have some minor issues to work out (before signing the contract).
A friend and fellow language buff told me when he asked an old French professor years after their course whether he remembered him, the prof wrote Votre nom ne m’est pas inconnu, “Your name is not unfamiliar to me.” It seems the French also use this when trying to be diplomatic (or not unkind).
As a final example, we’ll look at long-time (Welch-born) American singer, Tom Jones. In this video clip, he sings the very well-known song, “It’s Not Unusual to Be Loved by Anyone.”
In addition to being very popular, this song has given rise to the following joke in American culture.
Patient: Doctor, I can’t stop singing “The Green, Green Grass of Home.” [another Jones song]
Doctor: Hmm, it sounds like you have Tom Jones Syndrome.
Patient: Is that common?
Doctor: It’s not unusual….
Ask your native-speaking co-workers if they can think of other examples of dual negatives in the workplace. Please contact me if you’d like to raise your level of English communication for personal or professional purposes.