Double Negatives

Here’s a troublesome sentence from the Social Q’s column in the New York Times from November 3, 2019: 

“But if you can’t find a way to trust your husband again, I don’t believe you can afford not to divorce him.”

What does that sentence mean? Even though I’ve read and reread it, I still wouldn’t be willing to swear that I understand it. I think this is what it’s saying:

“If you can’t find a way to trust your husband again, you need to divorce him.”

But there are three negatives (can’t find, don’t believe, not divorce). It takes a lot of plodding to work your way through that. Why not just say what you mean?

Here’s some advice for you: write positive sentences.

I can’t believe Janet didn’t get the promotion.  CONFUSING

I’m amazed that Janet wasn’t promoted.  BETTER

While we’re at it, let’s talk about an urban legend concerning double negatives: two negatives indicate a positive. No. English isn’t math.

Many languages – including Russian and Spanish – have double negatives. Do you really want to tell the Russians that they don’t know how to do math?

And this may surprise you: Old English used to have double negatives too. They’re gone now, of course, and they’re considered a diction mistake. Don’t use a double negative (“I don’t have nothing”) at a job interview! But don’t let anyone tell you that two negatives make a positive.


4 thoughts on “Double Negatives

  1. Jane McGinnis

    I was thinking…”he was not about to step into….” or “he was not about to enter” (in case he was in a wheelchair…
    your thoughts?

  2. ballroomdancer Post author

    Hi, Darrell! Happy to hear from you! You’re absolutely right. We all know what “I could care less” means, and we may not even notice that not was omitted.

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