Grammar Wednesday!

Double negatives and split infinitives!

Now, I am one who is of the opinion that, in most cases in life, living by the buffet approach is perfectly acceptable and correct. Some will call me hypocritical and others will praise my independent thinking, but I tend to pick and choose that which suits me and disregard that which doesn’t. Of course, not everything in life lends itself to that approach, and I try to be mindful of following the rules when doing so is required – I always wear my seat belt and I’m fastidiously monogamous, for example – but in most cases, there’s a lot of wiggle room built into the systems.

While there are some grammar rules that I follow quite religiously (see last Wednesday’s discussion of the subjunctive and indicative that started a little firestorm in the comments section for an example), there are others that just don’t suit me all the time, so I don’t always stick to them. Rules that apply to double negatives and split infinitives are my two favorite to break.

A double negative is a sentence in which two negative indicators contradict themselves so that the end meaning is positive. The form is most often used to emphasize or exaggerate a point:

I can’t not have a slice of chocolate coconut cheesecake if it’s on the specials menu.

What this sentence says is that I have to have it – that I cannot NOT order the dessert if it’s available. Also think of the Talking Heads’ Life During Wartime:

This ain’t no disco, this ain’t no party, this ain’t no foolin’ around…I ain’t got time for that now….

Even though the double negatives contradict themselves to make positive statements (if it ain’t no disco, then it really IS a disco) the point here is that we’re NOT having fun and, in fact, things are downright dangerous.

Most people don’t use double negatives correctly, and speak in them to mean the outcome to be negative. For example, it’s not uncommon (there’s another double negative!) to hear students in the halls of TCC say things like:

Dude, I can’t go out tonight; I don’t got no money!

If the dude don’t got no money, then he’s got SOME money, but the dude doesn’t know that.
Perhaps my favorite grammatical rule to break is the prohibition on splitting infinitives. First of all, an infinitive is just a fancy name for the “to” form of a verb. “To eat,” “to go,” “to scream” are all infinitives. Splitting an infinitive is the act of putting a word between “to” and whatever verb your using. We all know the most famous one:

images2.jpeg…to boldly go where no one has gone before…

I split infinitives all the time. Doing so puts a greater emphasis on whatever it is your saying, and I very often find that the split form sounds more natural than the non-split form. I mean, really; to go boldly? I don’t think so. Some of my favorites include things like:

I really need you to NOT spatter toothpaste all over the bathroom mirror every time you brush your teeth.

I have to seriously clean out my closet.

I’ve decided to really get serious about getting to the gym.

Happy Wednesday, Everyone!

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3 Comments

Filed under Grammar

3 responses to “Grammar Wednesday!

  1. I think you’re conflating a couple of different structures in the double negatives category. The first type it’s not uncommon, I can’t not… are those in which there is an extra, introduced negative element, with the purpose of changing the polarity back again.
    The second type are those in which a single negative category has spread over multiple elements. In the dude’s example, the NEG category has been imposed on the verb do > don’t as well as the object noun phrase money > no money. These are negative concord, a lot of languages use it (Latin and all its offspring, for instance). Whether they’re ‘wrong’ or not, is up to you. They certainly connote a different sociolect of speech. I for one, wouldn’t use negative concord in an essay or anything like that.

    As for split infinitives, well, sometimes it’s absolutely required, as in We have done this to better reflect engineering practice. This cannot have the same meaning if you move the adverb (courtesy of Language Log.

    “T’is a crime to ever split the infinitive”

  2. Jaŋari’s right. The negative concord found in examples like “I don’t got no money” is not standard English, but it is normal in other English dialects and many other languages.

    However, the double negative of “I can’t not have a slice of chocolate coconut cheesecake” is standard and occurs in formal writing. Other examples are “not uncommon,” “not infrequent,” “not unlikely.”

    Do any usage books still recommend not splitting the infinitive? I thought we’d all moved past that little myth.

  3. My husband constantly used the “don’t got no” form, as in I don’t got no clean clothes. While he thinks it is just funny, the kids are picking up on that. It is nearly impossible to break the kids of these habits!

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