It is an established rule of English grammar that two negatives cancel each other out.
In other words, the proper meaning of “he did not do nothing” is “he did something”.
As with all rules, there are exceptions. It is accepted that in some cases negatives can be multiplied to give added emphasis. However examples of this are few and far between, and are mainly found in literary texts, which perhaps explains why the two main authorities on English grammar, Sir Ernest Gowers ( The Complete Plain Words) and H.W. Fowler ( A Dictionary of Modern English Usage) both use the same quotation from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to illustrate this.
We can therefore safely consider that in business and legal writing, the use of a double negative would be interpreted as a mistake or lapse of style.
Below are two examples of incorrect usage by politicians, quoted by Gowers:
- There is no reason to doubt that what he says in his statement is not true.
Although most readers will automatically make the mental adjustment and arrive at the intended meaning, which is that it seems that he is telling the truth, in actual fact what the sentence says is that it seems that he is not telling the truth. The sentence should read “there is no reason to doubt that his statement is true “.
- The time is not being used neither adequately nor efficiently.
Here, the author should have written:
“The time is not being used adequately or efficiently.”
This example also raises the issue of how to use the construction “neither … nor”. This will be discussed in another article.
Multiple negatives should be avoided wherever possible. Apart from the risk of actually saying the opposite to what you mean to say, as in the first example and the following example, they make sentences unnecessarily complicated. A reader will very probably need to stop and think twice in order to understand the sentence.
In this example, taken from a Translation Agencies UK translation of submissions to a French court, the translator has caused the claimant to say the opposite of what it intended to say:
The defendant, as a professional with many years of experience in this sector, can hardly fail to be unaware of the principle …
The French read ” le défendeur …. ne saurait ignorer le principe …”.
“Can hardly fail to be unaware” means that it is practically a certainty that the defendant is unaware of the principle.
What the claimant actually means is that the defendant “can hardly fail to be aware” or “can hardly be unaware”.
However, the translator could have avoided this mistake by opting for the following, much clearer, solution:
“the defendant … must surely be aware of the principle”.
This last example is proof that the simplest solution is often the best!