Double Negatives

In modern English, double negatives usually cancel each other out. So in the sentence 'He can't not eat it', most English speakers would understand it to mean 'he must eat it'.

In Old English, double and multiple negation does not cancel out the negation, it emphasises it. So the more negations included in a sentence, the more the negative aspect of the statement is stressed. For example, examine the sentence below from the Gospel of John: 'Ne geseah næfre nan mann god'. A completely literal translation would be 'has not seen never no man God', but a more faithful translation would be 'no one has ever seen God'. The negations in the Old English are used to emphasise his point, and they do not cancel each other out.


As you can see in the sentence above, verbs are not the only words to prefix the negative particle. The adverb 'æfre - ever/always' becomes 'næfre', while the numeral or indefinite article in 'an mann' meaning 'one/a certain man' is prefixed with the negative particle to give us 'nan mann' or 'no man'. Other common negatons you might come across are 'nænig - not any/none' from 'ænig - any', 'nahwær - nowhere', and 'nealles - not/not at all'. Finally, the determiner 'no' in Old English is 'na', so a question might be answered with 'gea - yes' or 'na - no'.

Although in standard English double negations are not allowed, non-standard forms and some dialects of English retain double negation. For example 'I wasn't doing nothing' is a double negative that means 'I wasn't doing anything'.

Continue through to a summary of negation.

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