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

Page 312

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. 98 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. 99 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. 100 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