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October 25, 1998 - Double Negatives - 2002-02-12

INTRO: It's time to "ask the Wordmasters," as Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble answer some mail from listeners.

MUSIC: "Please, Mr. Postman"/The Marvelettes

AA: A few weeks ago, Rosanne and I talked about double negatives. We're going back to that subject because we've gotten more letters and e-mails -- from China, Israel and Hungary, all about double negatives.

RS: We made it clear that standard English frowns on saying something like. . .


"Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges. I don't have to show you any stinkin' badges."

AA: That famous line from the old movie "Treasure of the Sierra Madre" might be less dramatic had the Mexican character said to Humphrey Bogart: "badges. We don't have any badges." But in standard English that's the way it should be.

RS: A Chinese listener asks us, "What is the meaning of 'I don't know nothing'?" It's slang, a way to mean you don't know something. But literally you're saying the opposite -- that you do know something -- because two negatives make a positive.

We also received this message: "Hi, I'm listening on shortwave in a Hungarian forest (and) e-mailing from a mobilephone" this listener writes, "the Hungarian language has double negatives." Yes, and so do other languages. Even -- dare I say it. -- English.

AA: That's right, there are some cases in English where it's not unthinkable to use a double negative. In fact, it's perfectly OK. Unlike "bad" double negatives, these "good" double negatives are a way to imply something without really saying it.

RS: Confused? To help explain, we spoke to Claire Contraire, a noted "expert" on double negatives, played here by VOA's Barbara Klein.


CLAIRE: "My knowledge is by no means negligible." It's funny, in hardly no time, I've really internalized the concept."

RS: "You've devoted your life to this subject."

CLAIRE: "But of course that doesn't mean I don't have other interests. For example, cooking isn't something that turns me off."

AA: "Do you have many friends?"

CLAIRE: "Now, that isn't nice! No one has no friends."

AA: I guess that's a yes.

RS: Claire Contraire says double negatives have a positive use in social discourse.


CLAIRE: "One would never say you should never use a double negative."

AA: "So never say never."

CLAIRE: "And never say never use a double negative, because sometimes it's useful. For example, that shirt you have on. It's not unbecoming."

AA: "Thank you. Why would a person want to use the double negative."

CLAIRE: "Well, for example, the comment about your shirt. If I don't want you to think that I'm flirting with you or going too far -- I just want to let you know that it's a nice shirt by saying, 'that shirt isn't unbecoming.' Or if I were lying ... "

RS: "Not entirely telling the truth."

AA: "If you asked me how I liked your book and I said, 'well, it was not bad, it was not uninteresting,' wouldn't you rather I say it was wonderful, it was great -- or that this shirt is a beautiful color instead of 'it's not unbecoming'?"

CLAIRE: "I would rather it, but I would also think that you're sending me a signal that maybe you don't think the book is all that great. I mean, that's how we use the language."

RS: You know, Avi, Claire Contraire wasn't as negative as I thought she'd be.

AA: Yes, but why didn't she just come out and say she hated my aubergine shirt!

RS: On Wednesday, President Clinton's new press secretary, Joe Lockhart, used a double negative in referring to the Middle East summit in Maryland. He told reporters at a briefing, quote: "We wouldn't still be at this if we didn't believe that both sides were serious about reaching an agreement."

AA: So why not accentuate the positive? Well, the language of diplomacy is nothing if not subtle.

RS: Next week we'll look at a language that's not at all subtle anymore, and that's the language of American politics -- to set the stage for the November third elections in the US.

AA: We hope you'll vote for sending us more questions. You'll receive a VOA souvenir if we read your question on the air. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.