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H.L. Mencken (1880–1956). The American Language. 1921.

IX. The Common Speech

8. The Double Negative

SYNTACTICALLY, perhaps the chief characteristic of vulgar American is its sturdy fidelity to the double negative. So freely is it used, indeed, that the simple negative appears to be almost abandoned. Such phrases as “I see nobody,” “I could hardly walk,” “I know nothing about it” are heard so seldom among the masses of the people that they appear to be affectations when encountered; the well-nigh universal forms are “I don’t see nobody,” “I couldn’t hardly walk,” and “I don’t know nothing about it.” Charters lists some very typical examples, among them, “he ain’t never coming back no more,” “you don’t care for nobody but yourself,” “couldn’t be no more happier” and “I can’t see nothing.” In Lardner there are innumerable examples: “they was not no team,” “I have not never thought of that,” “I can’t write no more,” “no chance to get no money from nowhere,” “we can’t have nothing to do,” and so on. Some of his specimens show a considerable complexity, for example, “Matthewson was not only going as far as the coast,” meaning, as the context shows, that he was going as far as the coast and no further. Only gets into many other examples, e. g., “he hadn’t only the one pass,” “I can’t stay only a minute,” and “I don’t work nights no more, only except Sunday nights.” This last I got from a car conductor. Many other curious specimens are in my collectanea, among them: “one swaller don’t make no summer,” “I never seen nothing I would of rather saw,” and “once a child gets burnt once it won’t never stick its hand in no fire no more,” and so on. The last embodies a triple negative. In “You don’t know nobody what don’t want nobody to do nothing for ’em, do you?” there is a quadruplet. And in “the more faster you go, the sooner you don’t get there,” there is a muddling that almost defies analysis.

Like most other examples of “bad grammar” encountered in American the compound negative is of great antiquity and was once quite respectable. The student of Anglo-Saxon encounters it constantly. In that language the negative of the verb was formed by prefixing a particle, ne. Thus, singan (=to sing) became ne singan (=not to sing). In case the verb began with a vowel the ne dropped its e and was combined with the verb, as in noefre (never), from ne-oefre (=not ever). In case the verb began with an h or a w followed by a vowel, the h or w of the verb and the e of ne were both dropped, as in noefth (=has not), from ne-hoefth (=not has), and nolde (=would not), from ne-wolde. Finally, in case the vowel following a w was an i, it changed to y, as in nyste (=knew not), from ne-wiste. But inasmuch as Anglo-Saxon was a fully inflected language the inflections for the negative did not stop with the verbs; the indefinite article, the indefinite pronoun and even some of the nouns were also inflected, and survivors of those forms appear to this day in such words as none and nothing. Moreover, when an actual inflection was impossible it was the practise to insert this ne before a word, in the sense of our no or not. Still more, it came to be the practise to reinforce ne, before a vowel, with na (=not) or naht (=nothing), which later degenerated to nat and not. As a result, there were fearful and wonderful combinations of negatives, some of them fully matching the best efforts of Lardner’s baseball players. Sweet gives several curious examples. “Nan ne dorste nan thing ascian,” translated literally, becomes “no one dares not ask nothing.” “Thaet hus na ne feoll” becomes “the house did not fall not.” As for the Middle English “he never nadde nothing,” it has too modern and familiar a ring to need translating at all. Chaucer, at the beginning of the period of transition to Modern English, used the double negative with the utmost freedom. In “The Knight’s Tale” is this:

  • He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde
  • In al his lyf unto no maner wight.
  • By the time of Shakespeare this license was already much restricted, but a good many double negatives are nevertheless to be found in his plays, and he was particularly shaky in the use of nor. In “Richard III” one finds “I never was nor never will be”; in “Measure for Measure,” “harp not on that nor do not banish treason,” and in “Romeo and Juliet,” “thou expectedst not, nor I looked not for.” This misuse of nor is still very frequent. In other directions, too, the older forms show a tendency to survive all the assaults of grammarians. No, it doesn’t,” heard every day and by no means from the ignorant only, is a sort of double negative. The insertion of but before that, as in “I doubt but that” and “there is no question but that,” makes a double negative that is probably full-blown. Nevertheless, as we have seen, it is heard on the floor of Congress every day, and the Fowlers show that it is also common in England. Even worse forms get into the Congressional Record. Not long ago, for example, I encountered “without hardly an exception” in a public paper of the utmost importance. There are, indeed, situations in which the double negative leaps to the lips or from the pen almost irresistibly; even such careful writers as Huxley, Robert Louis Stevenson and Leslie Stephen have occasionally dallied with it. It is perfectly allowable in the Romance languages, and, as we have seen, is almost the rule in the American vulgate. Now and then some anarchistic student of the language boldly defends and even advocates it. “The double negative,” said a writer in the London Review a long time ago, “has been abandoned to the great injury of strength of expression.” Surely “I won’t take nothing” is stronger than either “I will take nothing” or “I won’t take anything.”