Double negatives get a bad rap in the writing world—as generally, they should. We’ve all been taught to avoid phrases like “She didn’t like no one,” or “He never said nothing,” because they are unwieldy and confusing and in fact mean the opposite (“She likes everyone,” “He said something”) of what they appear to.
Recently, a writer friend gleefully pointed out that I use double negatives all the time: “It’s not impossible,” I said thoughtfully, of stacking her plasticware on top of her cookware on top of her cabinets. “I don’t disagree,” I said amiably, about her suggestion that we adopt seven puppies at once.* Our debate about whether my vernacular was grammatically correct—and more importantly, if I should use such figures of speech when I write, was my writing grammatically correct—spurred me to do some digging. Were double negatives always off-limits? My “Steve Almond does it in his Twitter bio”-defense was not winning over my friend. (Though in my opinion, THERE’S NO REASON IT SHOULDN’T HAVE.)
What I discovered is subtleties in double negative usage that don’t always make them a no-no (pun not intended). Using certain constructions called litotes—pronounced “lie-toe-tees,” for all you who 1) plan to casually/subtly drop this word in everyday water-cooler conversation, like a basketball into a bowl of soup, or 2) live with another word nerd, where it’s an unspoken daily battle to out-vocabularize each other—you can actually use double negatives as a form of understatement or emphasis that is perfectly grammatically acceptable.
For example, by saying, “She is not at all incompetent,” you’re modestly emphasizing her skill. By acknowledging, “You didn’t do too badly at the game,” you’re kindly complimenting my lack of total ineptitude. Other popular litotes constructions: “She is not unintelligent,” “He isn’t unlike his grandfather,” “Your raise is not insignificant.” See how it works? In general, the formula for litotes is combining a negative (common examples: not, no, never, none) with a negative prefix (in-, non-, un-), though there are exceptions to this.
So I’ll keeping speaking and writing as I have been—sorry, aforementioned Writer Friend, for whom I know this is a serious and personal pet peeve—conceding double negatives are both right and not right. But what are your thoughts, my fellow writers? How do you feel about using litotes?
*These are slight exaggerations, but you get the point.
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Baihley Grandison is the assistant editor of Writer’s Digest and a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @baihleyg, where she mostly tweets about writing (Team Oxford Comma!), food (HUMMUS FOR PRESIDENT, PEOPLE), and Random Conversations With Her Mother.