I made the mistake of entering into an argument with a linguist in my local pub last night, much to the amusement of the assembled company at the bar. It was an argument I was never going to win; not only could my linguist friend call upon a superior knowledge of language, he is also the type of person who is always right. Even when he’s wrong!
The linguist, whom I shall call Len to save his blushes, is a very good friend of mine; and the argument, fuelled by a bevvy or two, was far more friendly banter than fierce debate. It centred around the double negative, a grammatical howler that chills me (and, I would imagine, 99% of authors) to the bone. Len, however, stated that the double negative (derived from the French ‘Ne…pas’) was once correctly used in English, and only became outlawed when the upper classes adapted old English to suit their requirements.
I argued that the double negative has no place in modern English. Len shot my argument down in flames, suggesting that I am one of the many slavish followers of language trends.
I ventured that language trends eventually become accepted as correct when widely used.
Len pooh-poohed the very idea. The only people, in his opinion, who speak the language as it was originally intended are the underprivileged; people who have avoided being brainwashed by the aristocracy and their adapted English.
In desperation, I argued that, in modern English, a double negative makes a positive. ‘I don’t know nothing,’ for example, means that the speaker does know something.
‘Well quite,’ declared Len triumphantly. ‘They know the correct way to speak English.’
It was at this point I started waving a white flag above my head!
The double negative: Does it have a place in modern English?