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min read
April 3, 2024

What’s a Double Negative? + How To Fix It

What’s a Double Negative? + How To Fix It

Table of contents

Double negatives happen when two negative expressions are used together in a sentence or part of a sentence — for example,

“She didn’t go nowhere.”  

Unlike in some languages, double negatives in English typically turn into positive statements. This can change the meaning of your writing and confuse your readers. 

That’s why many people say to avoid double negatives. But in my career as an editor, I’ve learned that double negatives aren’t always the grammatical no-no you might have heard they are.

In this guide, I provide examples of double negatives and explain why they matter, when to avoid them, and how to fix them so your writing stays sharp.

Key takeaways

  • A double negative occurs when you use two negative expressions together — e.g., “I can’t think of nothing.”
  • To fix double negatives, replace one of the negative expressions with a positive one.
  • While you should avoid double negatives in formal writing, they can be useful in informal or creative writing to reflect natural speech, contribute to a playful tone, or emphasize the positive.
  • Wordtune can help you catch and correct double negatives in your writing.

Double negative definition

A double negative happens when a sentence or part of a sentence contains two negative expressions

Negative expressions are words that change a sentence or part of a sentence to show it isn’t true, isn’t happening, or isn’t possible. 

You encounter these all the time in English! Examples of negative expressions include:

  • no 
  • none
  • nobody 
  • no one
  • nothing
  • nowhere 
  • nor
  • not (especially [verb] + not — e.g., “have not,” “is not,” “did not,” etc.)
  • neither 
  • never
  • barely
  • hardly
  • rarely
  • scarcely
  • seldom

In English, double negatives can cause confusion, as two negative expressions together typically cancel each other out and create a positive statement. This can make your writing suggest the opposite of what you mean.

Examples of double negatives

The easiest way to understand double negatives is to see them in action. Let’s take a look at some examples below.

a table showing examples of common double negatives and how to fix them

How to fix double negatives

Fixing double negatives can be quick and easy. All you need to do is replace one of the negative expressions with a positive expression

This is because two negative expressions together usually create a positive meaning, while one negative expression creates a negative meaning.

For example:

Below is a list of common negative expressions and their positive alternatives to help you fix double negatives in your writing.

a list of common negative expressions and their positive alternatives

To avoid double negatives in the first place, think about the true meaning of the sentence you’re writing. Often, a double negative is used to make a positive statement. Is this what you’re aiming to do, or do you want to make a negative statement?

In the example below, are you trying to say someone has no knowledge of a topic? 

Do double negatives always need to be corrected?

In formal writing, such as academic papers, it’s best to fix double negatives to maintain clarity and proper grammar. 

But in other types of writing or speech, you don’t always have to. You might use double negatives when:

You’re aiming for a playful, sarcastic, or ironic tone of voice

It can be amusing to say something in a way that usually means the exact opposite. For example, “I’m not unhappy with the results” can cleverly convey satisfaction.

You’re writing characters or dialogue that reflects unique speech patterns

Double negatives can add depth and authenticity to your writing, especially when representing dialects, cultural backgrounds, or time periods where double negatives in speech are common.

Example:

“Very nice, indeed, if you don’t wanna go nowhere.” — said by Bert, the chimney sweep with a Cockney accent, in 1964’s Mary Poppins

You’re writing song lyrics

Songwriters often use double negatives for aesthetic, rhythmic, or stylistic purposes or to convey emotions and messages more impactfully.

Examples: 

The Rolling Stones song “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
The Bill Withers song “Ain’t No Sunshine.”
“We don’t need no education” from the Pink Floyd song “Another Brick in the Wall.”

Double negatives are also acceptable when “not” comes before a negative adjective — e.g., “not uncommon” or “not unusual.” Phrases like these are understood as positives (“not common” = “common,” “not unusual” = “usual”) and shouldn’t confuse the reader.

Likewise, you can use double negatives in informal writing to highlight the positive — e.g., “Emily couldn’t not go to the concert with Josie.” This emphasizes that the concert is an unmissable event for Emily — that she has to go.

Conclusion

Double negatives occur when a sentence or part of a sentence has two negative expressions — i.e., words like “no,” “never,” “not,” “neither,” and more. 

Technically, double negatives are grammatical mistakes, so you should avoid them in formal and academic writing. For other types of writing, though, a double negative can add emphasis, reflect real-life speech, emphasize the positive, or make a message more playful or memorable.

Correcting double negatives is as straightforward as swapping a negative expression for a positive one. For an extra helping hand, though, use Wordtune. Our Editor tool can automatically detect double negatives in your work and suggest corrections in a snap.

Wordtune editor flagging the double negative “didn’t have nothing” and suggesting to replace “nothing” with “anything.”
Wordtune editor flagging the double negative “didn’t have nothing” and suggesting to replace “nothing” with “anything.”

For more insights on becoming a better writer, check out our guides on writing concisely and effectively, fixing run-on sentences, and making your writing flow.

FAQs

What is a double negative example?

An example of a double negative is “I don’t know nothing.” This suggests that the speaker does know something. When corrected, the sentence is, “I don’t know anything.”

Does Shakespeare use double negatives?

Yes, Shakespeare often used double negatives for emphasis and stylistic effect. Here’s an example of a double negative in Hamlet: “I never was, nor never will be.” 

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