Double Negatives in English Language: The Tug-of-War between Prescriptivism and Descriptivism


Language is a living entity that constantly evolves and adapts to the necessities of its users. One such element of linguistic evolution is the double negative, a disputed feature in the English language that perfectly illustrates the ongoing battle between prescriptive and descriptive grammar. This essay aims to explore the use of double negatives in the English language, and how the debate between prescriptivism and descriptivism impacts language usage and understanding.

Double Negatives: Origin and Meaning

A double negative is a construction formed by pairing two negative words or expressions within the same sentence or clause. Historically, the use of double negatives has been prevalent in some of the world’s major languages, such as Latin, Classical Greek, and Old French. In Old and Middle English, double negatives were often used as reinforcement, adding emphasis to negate a statement. However, as language evolved, some varieties of English treated double negatives as affirmation, resulting in ambiguity and complexities of interpretation.

Prescriptive Grammar and Double Negatives

Prescriptive grammar is the perspective claiming that there are rigid rules for proper linguistic usage, correctness, and grammaticality. By adhering to prescriptive grammar, language users are expected to observe standard grammar principles, avoiding deviations such as double negatives.

In the 18th century, English prescriptivists adopted principles from classical logic, including the rule that “two negatives equal a positive,” asserting that double negatives create confusion. Consequently, a double negative construction such as “I don’t know nothing” would be considered incorrect within this framework, as it appears to suggest the opposite of what the speaker may intend to convey.

Descriptive Grammar and Double Negatives

Descriptive grammar, on the other hand, aims to analyse and describe language as it is used within specific linguistic communities, without making judgments of correctness or preferability. This perspective recognises that double negatives can serve an intentional purpose, such as sociolinguistic expression or emphasis.

For example, in African American Vernacular English (AAVE), double negatives are used as a means of expression rather than being synonymous with logical negation. In such cases, “I don’t know nothing” carries the same meaning as “I don’t know anything,” and the double negative is understood by the community of speakers as a valid form of communication.

Middle Ground: A Language of Flexibility and Inclusivity

Acknowledging the language’s inherently dynamic nature, the key lies in striking a balance between the prescriptive and descriptive approaches. This involves recognising and accepting the linguistic variations that arise from social, regional, and cultural factors while maintaining a grasp of standard English.

It is essential for teachers and linguists to ensure that linguistic diversity is respected and acknowledged, while simultaneously providing tools to develop proficiency in standard language use. Likewise, language learners should strive to understand and appreciate the nuances and subtleties of different English dialects and registers, cultivating an inclusive linguistic environment that recognises authentic language variation.


The double negative, a debated feature in the English language, highlights the tensions between prescriptive and descriptive grammar. While the prescriptive view emphasises the need for clarity and adherence to conventional grammar rules, the descriptive approach values the richness and diversity of language as it is naturally employed by speakers from various linguistic communities.

Navigating the intricacies of linguistic evolution requires a measured approach that balances both perspectives. By respecting linguistic diversity and cultivating proficiency in standard language use, we foster inclusivity and promote deeper understanding of the marvellous complexities of the English language.

Published by Shady

CELTA / DELTA Tutor, English Assessment, Cambridge University

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