Say you’re a 7-year-old and you’ve been caught in a fib.
Maybe you got a poor grade on a test and you smeared the score on the paper so your parents can’t read it very well. Or you say, “Billy Peters said it would be OK to jump in the pool without our clothes. He got permission! Honest.” And my favorite:
Mom: “Jimmy, who crayoned your bedroom wall?”
The lie is pretty transparent to everyone involved and we eventually learn to cover our tracks more cleverly. “Darn, I’d love to help at your garages sale but I’ve got this dang work deadline.” Or “Did you think I said I would drive you to the airport? I’m sure I said wouldn’t be able to, yeah, that’s it…wouldn’t.”
OK, you see where we’re going here.
Now, let’s talk about double negatives.
The conventional modern rules of English grammar supposedly dictate that the two negative elements cancel each other out, in a sort of algebraic way, to give a positive statement instead, so that the sentence ‘I don’t know nothing’ could literally be interpreted as ‘I do know something’. But in ordinary use, we understand that the double neg used as slang is really a reinforcement.
In this way, two negative words (in bold below) in the same clause may express a single negative idea:
“We didn’t see nothing.” = We saw nothing.
“I can’t get no satisfaction” = I really cannot get satisfaction [in Kentucky* they call this “the Hillbilly Exemption,” aka the “Jagger/Richards Rule”]
I say conventional modern rules because some fussy linguists like John McWhorter or Richard Ingham like to point out that double negs were common in Old English (English before the year 1000), especially the West Saxon dialect, up to and including use by Shakespeare (“I cannot go no further.” As You Like It, c. 1600) I call this “The Appeal to Shakespeare Fallacy” — as though to say, “if it was good enough for old Will, it’s good enough for modern Bill.”
Here’s my own linguistic breakdown:
1.) True “double negative” — where one part apparently negates the other, leading to confusion.
“I don’t have no money.” (understanding the sentence depends on how you read or hear it; possible candidate for Hillbilly Exemption)
“She won’t be not going.” (clearly unclear)
“I’m not sure some of the English tutors didn’t understand the assignments.” (actual student note)
2.) Slang/dialectal double negative — where we understand the phrase as a dialectal, jazz, “arch” or vernacular use
“It don’t mean nuthin’” = It’s nothing. It doesn’t mean anything: clearly qualifies for a Hillbilly Exemption.
3.) Two negatives yielding a grammatically legitimate milder positive
This is actually a pretty useful way of understating a proposition, but one has to be fairly facile with one’s abilities to pull it off.
“It’s not that I don’t want to go…” (I do want to go but can’t for other reasons)
“These students cannot afford college…not because they aren’t smart enough…” (they are, or may be smart enough but there are other reasons they can’t afford college — actual student comment)
There’s actually a fourth kind of negative, but it requires a certain eye-rolling skill:
4.) Single negative yielding a mild positive
“He’s not terrible at math…”
And now, to Trump
Original statement at Trump/Putin press conference:
“My people came to me, Dan Coates, came to me and some others they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin. He just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be. But I really do want to see the server . . . So I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”
- Transcript: Trump And Putin’s Joint Press Conference. July 16, 2018, 1:09 PM ET NPR
Trump, next day:
“I thought it would be obvious, but I would like to clarify just in case it wasn’t. In a key sentence in my remarks, I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t’. The sentence should have been: ‘I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t, or why it wouldn’t be Russia,’ sort of a double negative. So you can put that in, and I think that probably clarifies things pretty good by itself.”
- “Would or wouldn’t: how Trump’s claim he misspoke unleashed a meme-fest” The Guardian
In other words, it makes sense to him that Russia would be involved (he doesn’t see how Russian was not involved.)
Thus, we seem to have a case of #3 above. “It makes sense that Russia would be involved (but that’s as far as I’m going to go).” But this is not exactly right, since it doesn’t make sense to offer a “mild positive” with “I don’t see any reason.” Like, “I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t be able to leave early. It’s a reasonable thing to do.”
(Aside from the usual Trump blathering, it’s interesting that he faltered, even in his correction, by saying “I wouldn’t” before re-correcting to “it wouldn’t.”)
Of course the real clunking sound of bad fibology is Trump seeming to blame “the sentence,” as though it was some disembodied thing that simply crawled out of his mouth without his knowledge.
Someone needs to re-take their 2nd-grade “Fibology” class.
* Reported to me by an actual Kentuckian
Trump photo modification by the author
“Jury of English Majors” cartoon, Mark Parisi, 2009, off the mark.com
Crying child image from “Child life: a collection of poems” (1871, John Greenleaf Whittier, p 221)