tlhIngan-Hol Archive: Mon Nov 30 12:44:16 2009

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Re: Double negatives

Tracy Canfield (

2009/11/30 ghunchu'wI' 'utlh <>:
> Did I err in using the name "Standard English" to refer to the strict
> grammatical rules taught in school?  Or did my English teachers err in
> telling me that double negatives essentially cancel?

Your English teachers erred, and they erred in two different ways.

One is the "double negatives cancel", which others have gotten into,
so I won't rehash.

The other is the idea that the negative only occurs once in an English
sentence.  Something more subtle seems to be going on here.  Compare

SE:  I don't want any pie.
Other Englishes:  I don't want no pie.

An English teacher might say that the first sentence contains one
negative element, and the second contains two.  But consider this
disallowed SE sentence:

SE:  *I want any pie.
SE:  I want some pie.

(the * is a standard linguistic shorthand for a sentence that native
speakers would consider impermissible)

The rule doesn't seem to be "Some varieties use double negatives, and
some don't."  The rule is more along the lines of "SE uses 'some' with
non-negative constructions of this sort, and 'any' with negative
constructions; some other spoken varieties use 'some' with
non-negative constructions and 'no' with negative constructions."  I
don't have _The Language Instinct_ nearby, but Pinker argues (citing
someone else, I think) that when you compare the distribution of "any"
and "no" in these sorts of construction, they have the same rules.  In
other words, if "no" is a negative above, "any" is too.

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