Accentuate the Positive? Eliminate the Negative?

Here is a topic that I have been pondering for a good part of my adult life–a usage conundrum that is simplified into this cautionary statement:  “A double negative makes a positive.”

In my less than humble opinion,  this may be true in physics, but it is without much merit in either spoken or written English. (It would appear but seldom in the latter format [writing] as users of the double negative would often be regarded as uneducated, perhaps uneducable, louts.)

I don’t find any comments about this topic in several usage/grammar texts that I have recently acquired. Does this suggest that there is little concern about it?

Father Divine,  a luminary in theology ranking with the later Jim Bakker and his kinfolk,  did,  in the mid-1940s according to lyricist Johnny Mercer,  once begin his homily on his radio program by saying, “You got to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.”  Some of us are very familiar with a popular song having those lines.  It was recorded first by The Pied Pipers and Paul Weston’s Orchestra and memorably also by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters as well as Aretha Franklin.

Here are the first four lines:

You’ve got to accentuate the positive                                              Eliminate the negative                                                                      Latch on to the affirmative                                                              Don’t mess with Mister In-Between

The double negative is typically used by those who are emphasizing the intent of their wanting to express negation or negativity.   Thus its use actually accentuates the negative.

A speaker who says,  for instance,  after being asked about a second helping of mashed potatoes,  “Thanks, I don’t want none,”  does not wish to have another portion.

Furthermore, if using the double negative made a positive, then a triple or quintuple use of negation would =  negative  as in “I don’t have none nohow.”  And a quaduple negative would = positive as in “I didn’t never have none no how.” And I don’t believe that that speaker in this instance intended to say that he indeed had some.

In sum,  we must always consider the intention of the speaker, not just the logic or illogic implicit in his usage of the English language.

In closing,  we should acknowledge a television ad with attempting to use the double negative to express a positive: and perhaps quite successfully.  This phrase came out a number of years ago, and I just recently saw it again,  I think on a delivery truck:  “Nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee.”   As with expressions using not un- [“not unlike,” for example],  the result is “positive” and we are supposed to accept that everybody likes Sara Lee products:  no matter how awkward and obscure was the locution,  not unlike some of my sentences.



15 Responses to “Accentuate the Positive? Eliminate the Negative?”

  1. CICvet Says:

    I once advised a young man to contact his grammar school for documentation so we could process his GED. His reply: “I ain’t gonna write no letter ’cause it ain’t gonna do no good nohow”. I count five negatives (did I miss one)? BTW, he did get his GED.

  2. Jeff Thompson Says:

    Dr. Rundus, you say “…In sum, we must always consider the intention of the speaker, not just the logic or illogic implicit in his usage of the English language.”

    I get the impression you continue to forgive the bad use of language so long as the person adequately communicates his thought. I wouldn’t expect an English profesor to take such a cavalier approach to proper language. To me, the examples you cite reflect nothing short of ignorance and lack of fundamental education. And that confirms to me that instruction in proper use of English in the classroom has been lacking for many years.

  3. Daryl Cobranchi Says:

    I think I disagree with your assessment that “no how” is a negative. It means the same as “anyway” which surely ain’t no way a negative. 🙂

  4. Frank B Maness,Jr. Says:

    I think I disagree- can you be more prescience? Daryl We know what you mean! I think that’s the point! Good example!! Language don’t have to be plain as day but yet no completely in the dark!!

  5. Macky Myers Says:


    Your example is “In no small measure and by no means negligible!”:)

  6. CICvet Says:

    Do what?

  7. Gregory Phillips Says:

    Not sure what you’re getting at here. Dr. Ray.

    I’d imagine multiple negatives aren’t addressed in grammatical texts because they’re seldom seen in written English, since any English teacher surely extinguishes the first sign of them in written work.

    Of course we know that additional negatives in speech don’t alter the speaker’s intent, but like it or not they do affect the literal meaning of his words.

    If I tell you that I ain’t scared of no one, I am expressing the thought that there are no people whom I do not fear, even if there’s an informally shared udnerstanding that that is not what I meant.

  8. Frank B Maness,Jr. Says:

    Like= I’m not scare of no one and the whole time shaking in your boots!! I heard you I’m also going to test your statement!!

  9. Raymond Rundus Says:

    I appreciate all of the responses.

    To some, I may seem rather too sympathetic toward language mishaps or verbal faux pas. Possibly. At the same time, however, I think and feel that anyone, especially a young person, should not be made to feel ashamed and maligned because of the language he or she brings from home or from his community to a more sophisticated, extended setting. And many children face this situation when they begin school, whether at four, five, or six years of age.
    So it may be a rather fine line between correcting and guiding and condemning or censuring. Usually, it will be the child’s classmates that will have the greatest influence. Then, when the child leaves the school and family settings to enter the work force, many more usage and idiom problems likely arise and one’s command and usage of language will again be subject to scrutiny and correction.

    Daryl Cobranchi’s query about whether “no how” is an established form of negation prompts me to say, “Yes, it is.” It roughly means the same as “in no way.”
    All this discussion of how pronouns and adverbs can be played against each other and also confuse reminds me of a wonderful little anecdote. I hadn’t seen nor heard of it for a number of years until “Dr. Lou” Holtz, in his NCAA football commentator’s role recently revealed that this story was a great one for use in the locker room, either before the game or at halftime. Here it is:
    “This is a story about four people: Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody.
    There was an important job to be done, and Everybody was asked to do it.
    Everybody was sure Somebody would do it.
    Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it.
    Somebody got angry about that because it was Everybody’s job.
    Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it.
    It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when actually Nobody asked Anybody.



  10. fayettenamhoe Says:

    —————-sweet heart, you need to walk upon these streets, what few they have left, and they call it Historic Hay street, the paving machine tries to cover it up, it WAZ the “WILD CROTCH EAST “of the east coast, sweet heart, maybe you forgot? grannola, saulsa , is no cure

  11. fayettenamhoe Says:

    — your so called idiom runs your life–

  12. fayettenamhoe Says:

    ———-discecting- the white anglo- language is your curse—–

  13. fayettenamhoe Says:

    From the Hoe’s wife: When my husband told me he had responded to your blog of course I thought, “Oh my, what now.” I’m pleasantly surprised at his “Prose” and want to say just a few things. Mr. Thompson has critized my husband’s use(or lack of use)of proper english. He seems to think if a person doesn’t communicate with a certain type of english usage they are ignorant and have had a lack of a proper education. Let it be known, my husband went to the VERY BEST of Fayetteville’s public and private schools. His parents would have had it no other way. Sadly, what they were unaware of was that there was an almost total lack of any really intelligent or caring teachers employed by those institutions at the time. He suffered in that respect dearly. Abuse of the worst kind both physically and mentally. But, he has survived; yes with rebellious tendencies but also with a love of communicating. That “sorta” comes from his trying to keep up with me(I have a B.A. in Literature and Philosophy). Every member of his immediate family has a college degree, from Phd’s to B.S.’s in Design. Our son will graduate with a Master’s degree in Public Administration in June. My husband tremendously respects an education but dislikes ignorant abusive people. I feel the same way. Language can love, hate, educate, and enthrall so we should embrace more of it, no matter how “unproper” it might be deemed to be. There seems to be such a negative mentality toward human differences instead of embracing them in the name of learning. While proper grammar and language usage should always be the ultimate goal so that we can better coexist with one another, communicating with “improper and different” words

  14. fayettenamhoe Says:

    Sorry, see I really got caught up in what I had to say and hit the submit button. Anyway, to finish….communicating with “improper and different” words has it’s merits also. In fact there is way too much censorship in our current state of language and affairs. The mind is growing smaller instead of larger and that is not a good thing.

  15. fayettenamhoe Says:

    Gee, one more thing. My husband had to drop out of high school for lots of reasons but he managed to obtain a G.E.D at Fayetteville Tech. I wish he could have managed a college education but the damage caused by his traumatic experiences in several of Fayettenam’s school’s negated any ability for him to sit for long periods of time and study. Lately though I have managed to get him to read a few more books and magazines. That’s his one positive school experience. He learned to read and write albiet in an odd “sorta” way.

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