The perils of using double negative constructions

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Jose A. Carillo

Jose A. Carillo

Due to the irrational fear that I might be haled to court for doing so, I rarely yield to the temptation of correcting the written English of lawyers. But for the sake of good English, I couldn’t let pass the conspicuous grammar error in the following passage from a Filipino lawyer’s provocative rant, reposted  by GMA News Online last December 1, about the use of mobile phones inside bank premises:

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“No law (or anything lower than that) cannot be passed by the Congress to prevent or suppress our right to communication and free speech. These two rights are very sacrosanct in a democracy, no matter how awful the speeches maybe. As you talk on your phone (just not so loud), you are actually effecting what the Constitution allows you to.”

To the flood of comments about Atty. Rod Vera’s audacious thesis that obviously touched a raw nerve in the blogosphere, I added my objection to this distracting double negative in that passage: “No law (or anything lower than that) cannot be passed by the Congress to prevent or suppress our right to communication and free speech.” I commented that the author surely meant “No law (or anything lower than that) can be passed by the Congress to prevent or suppress our right to communication and free speech,” and advised him to be careful with treacherous double negatives.

Remember now that a double negative uses two negatives that make them cancel each other, thus creating a positive statement. In the clause “no law cannot be passed by the Congress,” the adjective “no” cancels out the negative verbal auxiliary “cannot,” yielding the unintended contrary sense that “a law can be passed by the Congress.”

Aside from “no,” the following negative words serve to nullify a statement: “not,” “none,” “nothing,” “nowhere,” “neither,” “nobody,” “no one,” “hardly,” “scarcely,” and “barely.” This is what happens in sentences like “Not one helped the hit-and-run victim” and “Hardly anybody understood why she resigned.”

When we make the verb negative as well, however, an absurd double negative results: “Not one didn’t help the hit-and-run victim” and “Hardly anybody didn’t understand why she resigned.”

We must keep in mind though that a double negative isn’t necessarily grammatically or logically wrong. For instance, in “Scarcely any structure in Tacloban was left unscathed by Typhoon Yolanda,” the negative adverb “scarcely” validly negates the negative adverb “unscathed” to yield this equivalent positive statement: “Practically all structures in Tacloban were damaged by Typhoon Yolanda.”

One other thing that bothered me about Atty. Vera’s otherwise highly readable blog post is this statement (italicization mine): “There is a maxim that water cannot rise higher than its source.

Following that logic, banks cannot rise higher than the government (source of the license). Moreover, the government cannot rise higher than the Constitution (sources of policies, rights and powers).”

I won’t dispute the analogy about the behavior of water and the rights of banks and governments, but I’m not sure if that maxim is quoted correctly and if its logic holds true in the physical world. As far as I know, the maxim was enunciated by the Anglican divine John Henry Newman (1801-1890) in this wise: “In morals, as in physics, the stream cannot rise higher than its source. Christianity raises men from earth, for it comes from heaven; but human morality creeps, struts, or frets upon the earth’s level, without wings to rise.”

That a stream cannot rise higher than its source seems self-evident to me, whether figuratively or metaphorically. But for water itself not to be able to rise higher than its source? I dare say that water does it all the time by evaporating from the ground to become clouds, so perhaps the probative value of that maxim as quoted in that blog post needs to be seriously reexamined from a language standpoint.

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum at http://josecarilloforum.com. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo.

j8carillo@yahoo.com

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2 Comments

  1. Rod: You’re most welcome! That article of yours is so delightfully outspoken that–those two grammar and semantic kinks aside–I’m happy to give it more audience traction through my column. Despite the much-vaunted freedom of the press in PHL, it’s not every day that rightful indignation finds expression so passionately yet so lucidly and convincingly in our mass media. Keep it up!

  2. Mr. Carrillo,

    Thank you for your article. As not all lawyers are great English writers, we try our best. I have learned my lesson and will be now more aware of the rules of double negative.

    I appreciate that you consider my article as highly readable. And I really wanted to touch a nerve.

    God Bless.

    Sincerely,

    Rod Vera