ENGLISCH/723: Questions to Mrs. Gobbledygook (108) - Negatives (SB)


108. Nobody never says nothing

Dear Mrs Gobbledygook

...In my English lessons I have learned in Standard English it is not correct to say: "Nobody never says nothing". So I think it would be better English to express the idea by using: "Nobody ever says anything". But in my opinion this doesn't sound strong enough. What do you think?

Liana Ivanishyna (Ukraine)


Dear Ms Ivanishyna

Yes, you are right. "Nobody never says nothing" is not proper English, although it can be heard quite often in everyday's English. You do assume correctly that it would be grammatically right to say "nobody ever says anything". Well, I can understand, if your own language allows you to pile up multiple negatives, as a number of languages do, this restrained habit of Standard English may seem a bit weak. But in that sentence, apart from the word nobody, there are in fact two other words that signal clearly as it is a negative sentence. First, the use of the word "ever" in that context shows that there is a negative word that went before:

"Nobody ever says anything".

And the other word which in this sentence indicates the negative is "anything". Both "ever" and "anything" strengthen the idea of the negative. And we can understand this more easily, if we change that sentence from negative to affirmative:

"Everyone always says something".

Now, if you are trying to say: "everyone ever says anything" that is not only incorrect, it is nonsense, and it has no meaning. So you see, ever and anything do show that a negative went before.

But there is another possible version that includes that. Imagine that someone says:

"At those meetings I never say nothing".

It means, he always says something. So as you see there, it is possible to use more than one negative, but then you express a special meaning; in this case an affirmative meaning, a positive meaning. But if you use too many negatives you risk obscuring the meaning.

In speech this more-than-one negative is easy to understand, because your intonation helps to make the meaning clear. But if you're planning to take an exam, be particularly careful not use piles of negatives. The examiners won't think you are using the language in a clever and subtle way. They'll think you've made a mistake.

But just another thing: When you come to Britain you will almost certainly hear people using double negatives, or even triple negatives. And that is because a lot of dialects use as many negatives as possible. They pile them up, just like you use to do in Russian and in other languages. So in dialects, if someone says:

"Nobody never says nothing".

That means simply, "nobody ever says anything" and that last one is the version to copy:

"Nobody ever says anything".

Hoping that by now you will be able to say something...

Mrs. Gobbledygook

7 March 2007