That dreaded double negative

A few days ago, I was watching a programme on television, a talk show pretentiously titled ‘Whither English education in India?’ Or words to that effect. The anchor of the programme was talking to three teachers of English language and literature from major Indian cities. One of the participants, a lady of some standing amongst the teaching fraternity, was asked what she thought of the standard of English in our country today. Sounding quite haughty and full of herself, she replied, ‘I have always told the children in my school that until and unless they don’t read Shakespeare, they will never be successful in mastering English.’ That rumble you may have just heard is Shakespeare turning in his grave. Now here’s the thing. Without so much as batting an eyelid, this guardian of the colonial language that we have come to adopt as our own, fell straight into one of the most common hidden traps we are prey to, the inadvertent employment of the double negative, which reverses the meaning originally intended. This is a common affliction endemic to our country. On hearing this I asked myself, if this teacher has not realised the folly of her grammatical ways what earthly chance did the children have?

I do not have a problem with the man on the street speaking informally, spreading double negatives all over the place like a rash. After all, to him English is an acquired habit and one should be grateful, in a polyglot country such as ours, that taxi drivers and bus conductors make a spirited attempt to speak in a common lingo to get across to people from different geographies. Kudos to them, and one should refrain from sticking on dog and correcting their grammar. My problem is more to do with the so-called upper crust class of people who hold forth on just about any subject under the sun, with nary a care about merrily stepping into syntactic pitfalls. If you ask me, the television programme I referred to earlier should have been called ‘Wither English education in India.’ I trust, dear reader, your hawk-eye spotted the difference.

Our television anchors, news readers and those political representatives who constantly infest our small screens, are notoriously guilty of committing the crime of the double negative. Only the other day, an oft-seen lady of obstreperous temperament with a preternatural sulk, from one of the leading political parties had this to say to the anchor, and I am paraphrasing, ‘Until you don’t apologise for that remark, I won’t walk out of this programme this instant.’ Naturally, the anchor man, who came from a better finishing school, heeded her instruction and declined to proffer an apology! There is comic irony in this exchange, and how a word or expression out of place can create confusion and misunderstanding. However, for the most part, our conversations tend to sprinkle double negatives like largesse and no one is any the wiser. We have learnt to live with them. During my professional working days in marketing and advertising, I would often chide a junior colleague for saying things like, ‘until you don’t call me, I won’t come.’ My riposte to the puzzled colleague was, ‘I won’t call you, and you need not come.’

I will freely grant you that I must have been a bit of a pain in the posterior, forever looking out for errors to correct in other people. It comes from having spent much time in dark, dank printing houses in the dark, dank days of incessant power cuts in Calcutta during the 70s, reading galley proofs in 6 pt Helvetica or Garamond typeface for annual reports and corporate brochures, with only a kerosene lamp to throw some light. We were not aided by Word software telling us where we have gone wrong and to correct same. M/s Microsoft have some cheek telling me to correct ‘realise’ to ‘realize!’ And they don’t oblige if I ask for the British spelling option in favour of American. I can’t even tell them to sod off with a terse, ‘Until you don’t give me the British option, I won’t use Microsoft Word.’ You won’t get much change out of Apple, either.

At this point, I shall abruptly change the subject to Pink Floyd, the much revered and massively followed British rock band. To be honest and strictly speaking it is not really such a big change of subject, just a change of protagonist from English teachers and TV anchors in India to a band of British musicians. One of Pink Floyd’s most famous songs, Another Brick in the Wall opens with the lines, We don’t need no education / We don’t need no thought control. Now here is an English band, as English as Fish and Chips or Shepherd’s Pie, resorting to an American abomination, viz., the use of the double negative. That said, I think there are extenuating circumstances here that one must contend with. The world of pop music allows its own liberties with the language which the lofty world of the spoken or written word frowns upon. If Pink Floyd had sung the song pedantically correctly as We don’t need any education / We don’t need any thought control, it just would not have sounded right, certainly not to the younger generation, and the metre would have been all wrong. Pink Floyd’s equally celebrated compatriots, The Rolling Stones rocked the world with I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction), and The Beatles, in their song Oh! Darling, pleaded, I’ll never do you no harm. Enough said.

There are many more such examples but to cite three of the United Kingdom’s most legendary pop groups and their minor grammatical faux pas (not that they really are) would suffice for the present to make a point. Elvis Presley did complain that You Ain’t Nothin’ But A Hound Dog, but then, Elvis was as American as Mom and Apple Pie so we must make allowances.

Lest you should harbour a false notion that only famous pop musicians and semi-literate Indian television personalities frequently come under the spell of the double negative, take heart. No less than William Shakespeare was once found guilty of using a triple negative in his play Richard III, when he wrote, ‘I never was nor never will be.’ Hell’s bells! The italics are not the Bard’s. It goes without saying that had I challenged Shakespeare on his excessive use of the negative, he would have fobbed me off with a ‘More of your conversation would infect my brain.’ (Coriolanus Act 2, Scene 1). I doubt if anyone had the gall to tell old William that most of his conversations, as gleaned from his plays, gave many of his readers some level of brain disorder, but that is another matter. Which is hardly surprising for if you really annoyed the man, he could crush you through Hamlet’s voice, ‘O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who (for the most part) are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise.’ You have been warned.

End of day, to quote rusticated Congressman Sanjay’s Jha’s go-to phrase, one cannot place any value judgement on whether the usage of the double negative in our regular discourse is kosher or not. The jury is out and unlikely to return in a hurry. Ultimately, it is all a matter of conditioning. If you are an Indian who is well versed in the intricacies of the English language, it all depends on whether the American way of speaking appeals to you more or the British. I am specifically referring to Indians born and bred in India, and not people of Indian origin such as Rishi Sunak or V.S. Naipaul. Shashi Tharoor can be in the mix. Though he was born in the UK, he spent his early years in India, till he went to the US for higher education and, strangely, there acquired a British brogue. Those ringing, plummy tones would have raised his stock at the United Nations. And therein lies the rub. Had the estimable Tharoor returned to his home country to pursue a career in politics, armed with a Yankee twang, we would not have given him the time of day. But a clipped, British accent, a la Alec Guinness? Ah, now that is entirely different. That, we Indians like.

A caveat. I feel it incumbent upon me to explain, just to set the record straight, that the double negative variant starting with the words ‘until you don’t…’ is of uniquely Indian provenance, whereas the Pink Floyd offering, ‘we don’t need no education’ is a typically American figure of speech, finding favour in various parts of the globe.

Screenwriter Robert McKee got it just about right, ‘In life two negatives don’t make a positive. Double negatives turn positive only in math and formal logic. In life things just get worse and worse and worse.’ Speaking for myself, until you don’t tell me otherwise, I won’t speak in double negatives. Ain’t nobody can do nothin’ about it.

Published by sureshsubrahmanyan

A long time advertising professional, now retired, and taken up writing as a hobby. Deeply interested in music of various genres, notably Carnatic and 60's and 70's pop/rock. An avid tennis and cricket fan. Voracious reader of British humour and satire. P.G. Wodehouse a perennial favourite.

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  1. Such fun reading your blog. I look forward to it every Sunday with my first cuppa. (Hope I didn’t make no mistakes with my grammar (:-).


  2. Thanks for that entertaining piece Suresh.

    Mmm…..I would say that in English two negatives do make a positive. In its lyrics Pink Floyd are saying that the children do need education and do need thought control, even though that’s not what is intended. No wonder the world is in a mess.

    i understand though that in Russian a double negative still means negative.

    ‘I never was nor never will be.’ is alliterative style and if a triple negative still means ‘no’.

    Nevertheless a double negative should generally be a ‘no, no’. But that is not meant to be a yes!


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