Lesson #146: Do We Ever Use Double Negatives In English?

‘And unrecorded left through many an Age,

Worthy t’ have not remain’d so long unsung …’

John Milton, ‘Paradise Regained’ (1671)

These lines come from a poem – ‘Paradise Regained’ which I first read as a teenager and whose opening section I copied into the notebook featured in the photograph above. …

You may have seen in an English lesson a popular cartoon that has a caption, ‘Apparently, double negatives are ok in math but not in English.’

It is true. In English it is generally incorrect to use double negatives in a sentence. So avoid saying something like, ‘I don’t have no time for that’, but rather, ‘I don’t have any time for that’.

That said, there are specific places in literature where you might occasionally see a double negative. 

📜 You might encounter it in more ancient, or archaic, English writing, such as the lines quoted above written by John Milton (1608-1674), one of the most respected poets in English after Shakespeare. 

I remember the first time I read those lines, I had to think twice about their meaning. Here is my bland paraphrase of his grandiose lines:

‘These [acts] were left unrecorded through many ages, [even though] they were so worthy and should not have been ignored (‘unsung’) for so long …’

📝 Double negatives might also appear in literature if the writer is trying to represent a character’s colloquial way of speaking. They might then use such sentences as the grammatically incorrect example I gave above. Consider this line from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s remarkable 1852 classic, Uncle Tom’s Cabin:

📘 ‘Tom opened his eyes, and looked upon his master. “Ye poor miserable critter!” he said, “there ain’t no more ye can do! I forgive ye, with all my soul!” and he fainted entirely away.’

– Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)

All in all, you will not come across many spoken versions of double negatives like these two literary quotations. 

👉 Thus in answer to the question in this lesson’s title – do we ever use double negatives in English? – there are a few instances where double negatives are not only accepted but generally used

In fact, some of these are fixed expressions in English. I am including three such phrases below. They might sound a bit confusing when heard for the first time, so it is worth learning them if you would like to understand them immediately every time you hear them. You may also use them yourself to sound more natural and nuanced in your own expressions.

‘It is not uncommon for …’ 
E.g. ‘It is not uncommon for politicians in parliament to discuss legislation all night before the passing of a bill.’ In other words, it often happens that politicians in parliament stay up all night discussing legislation before passing a bill.

‘It was not unheard of for …’
E.g. ‘A hundred years ago, it was not unheard of for British families in India to send their sons abroad to boarding schools.’ Put differently, a hundred years ago you probably would have heard of British families in India sending their sons to boarding schools abroad.

‘It is not unusual for …’
E.g. ‘It is not unusual for large commercial stores to begin selling Christmas goods in early November.’ That is, it is quite usual for large stores to begin selling Christmas decorations, trees, etc., in early November. 

✍️ Using these three phrases in your spoken and written English will greatly enhance your expression, because they show an added subtlety of understanding and communication

In summary: even though you won’t often come across double negatives in English, the answer to this lesson’s title question is ‘yes’, you will find some double negatives in very particular contexts or as fixed expressions. Be prepared to hear them, and better still, to make them fully your own!

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2023)