“I didn’t do nothing,” is a double negative. The words didn’t and nothing, both being negative, create a sentence in which there are two negatives, when it is otherwise assumed that the speaker meant to enforce a single negation: Nothing was done.
Is this an error? Is this bad grammar?
Conventionally, many people suppose that it is. But the only reason given is mathematical: By multiplication, two negatives make a positive, and we were to compare language to math, it seems we are factoring two statements to make a product. Two negatives are actually creating a soft affirmative, as in the backhanded compliment, “you’re not totally incompetent.”
Except that language is not math—or, to be more specific, since math, like music, is a language, math is not the English language, and the English language ain’t no math.
Multiple negatives (that maintain a negation) do exist descriptively in multiple English vernaculars as systematic, predictable, rule-governed linguistic phenomena. This is known as the negative concord.
- They systematically fit into the user’s conversation, and are understood by natives. That is the very reason why, when “we” catch people in the act of using one, we understand what they meant to say, meaning we are not confused, just pointing out a grammar feature “we” find as an error.
- Their use is predictable in various contexts, and we already know to expect the phenomena from speakers of various backgrounds, who use them consistently. Were it an error, it would be a slip that people make, not a repeated pattern among certain social groups and in certain conventions.
- It is governed by specific rules that it naturally follows in its use. Whenever double negatives are employed—unless one negation is being stressed over the other, in which case it is clear we are employing them mathematically—they are meant to mean a single, emphatically expressed negation.
In various English vernaculars, all of which are legitimately spoken by people who (consciously and/or subconsciously) understand the rules of their own vernacular, the double negative acts as an intensifier, an deliberately artistic use of repetition, a phenomena of poetic license meant to convey an especially strident negation. In fact, sometimes you’ll see a triple negative: “I ain’t never done none o that!”
Sound ignorant to you? Think again.
A lot of scholars consider Geoffrey Chaucer to be the first great English writer. If not that, he is one of the most famous, most educated, most clever and most artistic of his time. In the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s great opus, he describes the knight thus: “”He never yet no vileness didn’t say / In all his life to no manner of man”.”
Here we see four negatives. If we tried to break them down mathematically, we would find the following:
He never didn’t not say it to nobody.=He never said to nobody=[some variation of possible at some point saying to somebody—vileness, that is]
But that is not what Chaucer meant. He was deliberately using an excessive emphasis, to stress the utter lack of malevolent speech. It is ultimately no different than saying, “He would never, never, never, never, never ever say something vile.” When someone talks like that, you don’t go counting the negatives, you roll them up as you would a snowball.
This negative concord exists in in other languages, such as Portuguese, French, Persian and Spanish. What’s unique about English is that it has yet to be adopted into Standardized English (not Standard, but Standardized, as no one group can lay claim to a standard for a language, but can only monopolize common use according to their use).
Today the double negative exists in Southern American and African-American English, in which it is predictably uttered, systematically involved, and governed by grammatical rules. It also exists in many regional British dialects. But as you can see, none of these vernaculars are standardized, and all three are stigmatized by upper class English speakers.
Use of the double negative markers betray not a lack of knowledge of grammar, but a lack of social prestige, thus why it is often taboo among circles which enjoy the luxury of high socio-economic status and the privileges that come with. And people who assume it is wrong to use a double negative—they just can’t tell no difference between prescriptive grammar and descriptive grammar. Don’t ask an English major; ask a linguist.
So should you use it? Well, I’ll give you a warning. See, it’s not incorrect grammar, but it is socially restricted grammar. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with you, but people won’t always get that, and thought it’s not your fault, some doors may be closed to you, and some eyes may be cast down at you. A guy could work out a brilliant equation to prove that a rocket is ready to fly, and an entire team of colleagues could nod in agreement, but the moment he says, “I don’t have no doubt this thing’ll fly,” we suddenly don’t trust him.
And this is why your teachers will be pressured to tell you it’s wrong. Their task is to prepare you for the future. They want doors to be open for you. So it’s safer to tell you it’s just bad grammar.
It is, my friends, a Shibboleth. So while you’re ok to use it, know that if you want to broaden the places you can go in the world, use discretion. A job interview might be a poor place to use it. Once you’re in a place where you feel comfortable, and establish credibility, like Chaucer, break it out if you want. After all, it’s a poetic technique, one that especially speaks for two minority cultures (Blacks and Mountain Folk) whose voices have been hidden or silenced in history. Don’t let them take your poetry; don’t let them take your speech. But if you want them to like you, the choice is up to you.
I don’t have no problem with it. Maybe you shouldn’t have no problem with it either.