Nobody is doing nothing vs. Nobody is doing anything
English translation: Nobody is doing anything. The other is wrong.
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17:07 Nov 29, 2013
English to English translations [PRO] Linguistics / grammar
English term or phrase:Nobody is doing nothing vs. Nobody is doing anything
Please advise which of these forms is *more* correct.
Even where two negatives cancel each other, they don't always do so exactly. 'Not untrue' is different from 'true' in that it is a qualified acknowledgement of truth, perhaps because the statement in question conforms to the letter but not the spirit of truth.
only use it by putting heavy stress on the negative element, as in the following contrived example: 'As hard as I try not to be smug about the misfortunes of my adversaries, I must admit I can't get no satisfaction out of his tenure denial." ;-)
Language Instinct - 389 - 'The so-called double negative, far from being a corruption, was the norm in Chaucer's Middle English, and negation in standard French- as in Je ne sais pas, where ne and pas are both negative. ...Standard English is really no different. What do 'any, even, and at all' mean in the following sentences? I didn't buy any lottery tickets. I didn't eat even a single French fry. I didn't eat fried food at all today. Clearly, not much: you can't use them alone, as the following strange sentences show: *I bought any lottery tickets. I ate even a single French fry. I ate fried food all day. What these words are doing is exactly what 'no' is doing in nonstandard American English, such as in the equivalent I didn't buy no lottery tickets. -agreeing with the negated verb. The slim difference is that nonstandard English co-opted the word 'any'; aside from that, they are pretty much translations. In light of the above, no one would dream of saying, 'I can't get no satisfaction' out of the blue to boast that he easily attains contentment.' Denying a negation is not the same as asserting an affirmative, and even then one could probably
Most of my comments are taken from the book Language Myths, edited by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill - Penguin, and come directly from the chapter "Double Negatives Are Illogical" by Jenny Cheshire. Also, I incorporated some ideas from the book, "The Language Instinct" by Steven Pinker - chapter "The Language Mavens".
You posted: "If there do happen to be any problems of ambiguity, these are very rare in speech because the person we are communicating with is right there with us, and we can sort out the problem right away. Ambiguity maybe more of a problem in writing, but a large body of research shows that in any case negatives occur far more often in spoken language that written language."
That is exactly the point I was making earlier: double negatives in writing are best avoided by non-native speakers, for fear of introducing an inadvertent ambiguity. I don't think any of the discussion here has really been about the oral situation, which is of course quite different.
It is quite true that (–1) – (–1) = 0. But that equation is not a correct analogy for a double negative. The second negative is not subtracted from the first one; it is added to it. And two negatives added to each other don't cancel each other out; they increase the negativity: (–1) + (–1) = (–2). Not that the rules of language can be determined mathematically in any case, but even in its own terms, that argument falls down.
Phrases such as 'not untrue' and 'not unkind' go beyond simple two-way distinctions. If we stop and think, we will probably agree that there are very few distinctions in the real world that are clearly either one thing or the other. Most of the time we are dealing with something in between. G. Orwell pointed out that these double negatives allow people to sit on the fence, in the middle ground between one extreme and the other.
If there do happen to be any problems of ambiguity, these are very rare in speech because the person we are communicating with is right there with us, and we can sort out the problem right away. Ambiguity maybe more of a problem in writing, but a large body of research shows that in any case negatives occur far more often in spoken language that written language.
or 'I gave nothing to someone'. Things get more complicated still if we consider what the affirmative version would be: 'I gave something to everyone'? 'I gave everything to someone'? Or I 'gave something to someone'? The problem is that if we want seriously to apply the rules of logic to language, we cannot think only in terms of negation. We have to take account of other distinctions that are important in logic. Words like 'nothing', 'no' or 'no one' are the negative equivalents of what logicians term 'universal quantifiers', like 'everything' and 'everyone'; but they are also the negative equivalents of 'existential' quantifiers' like 'something' and 'someone'. Issues concerning the logical interaction between negation and quantification have kept philosophers busy since the time of Aristotle and before. When we have to negatives to deal with, then, the question is not just whether or not they are illogical, but precisely which logical issues are involved and how they interrelate with each other and with the rest of the utterance.
When people object to double negatives, they usually point to logic, where there is a long tradition of assuming that two people refer to mathematics, where 'minus two minus minus two equals zero'. From these analogies, some people argue , it follows that two negatives in the same sentence must also cancel each other, turning, e.g., "there ain't no heaven for you to go" into 'there IS a heaven for you to go". It is simple to show that this is not a sensible way to argue. If we really want to apply the principles of mathematics to language, we must also consider utterances where there are not two but three negatives, like 'I did not give nothing to no one.' If two negatives cancel each other out, sentences such as this one are clearly negative, for there will be one negative left after the two of them have been canceled out. But which one is left? Didn't, nothing or no one? Unlike the figures of mathematics, words in language have meaning, so if we cancel some of the negatives we change the meaning of the sentence. If we apply the rules of logic to 'I didn't give nothing to no one', then, should we decide that the utterance means 'I gave something to no one?'
In English, double negatives are attested in all the dialects, whether urban or rural, southern hemisphere, or northern hemisphere; they occur in the standard variety of English and in all the creoles. It is only in the standard variety of English that double negatives have fallen out of favor. This decline seems to have taken place during the 18th century. This was the period when grammarians attempted to establish a set of norms of good usage. The development of a specific style for formal written prose at that time may also have encouraged the decline of double negatives, for in writing the risk of ambuguity does exist, since our interlocutor is not present and it is impossible to use intonation or stress to make our meaning crystal clear. The 18th century was also a time when 'polite' society, in Britain at least, was striving to develop a 'cultivated' style of speech. It became conventional in polite circles to use a detached impersonal style, so it would not have been surprising if their members had stripped their speech of the emphasis conveyed by multiple negatives.
My disagreement is with the assertion that 'nobody is doing nothing' is incorrect because it means exactly the opposite of what is intended. On the contrary, it means exactly what is intended, albeit in non-standard English. The Asker has asked for the "more" correct phrase without defining what he means by "more correct". I don't disagree with Richard Sanders, who says that whether the first construction is correct depends on the context. However, I take the question to mean: Which form is correct in standard English? The answer, of course, is 'nobody is doing anything'.
Fowler reminds us that language is always in a flux and accepted practice changes over time.
If speakers of standard English never use this construction, which they don't, there is no ambiguity! The listener will understand that this is non-standard English and the two negatives reinforce rather than cancel each other.
How about we bring the Bard into the lists? In “Richard III” one finds “I never was nor never will be”; in “Measure for Measure,” “harp not on that nor do not banish treason,” and in “Romeo and Juliet,” “thou expectedst not, nor I looked not for.”
"At some point between the 16c. and the 18c., for reasons no longer discoverable, double negatives became socially unacceptable in standard English. Playwrights placed them in the conversation of vulgar speakers, and 18c. grammarians like Lindley Murray roundly condemned them.
In present day English, closely placed self-cancelling negatives are eminently acceptable if they are not overused or too intricate: e.g. it has not got unnoticed = it has been noticed; I don't feel inclined to disagree; a not unwelcome decision; I am not entirely dissatisfied. On the other hand, the use of double or cumulative negation for emphasis is taken to be a certain indication of poor education and of linguistic deficit. But it was not always so in the past and attitudes can easily change again in the future."
Fowler's Modern English Usage, Revised 3rd Ed, R W Burchfield, 1998.
"Nobody is doing nothing" is not a very uncommon statement. I've just found it in about 200 web pages, compared with some 390 for "nobody is doing anything". In theory, according to normative grammar, "nobody is doing nothing" means "everybody is doing something". But only in theory; if you said it, that is not what people would understand you to mean; they would assume you meant "nobody is doing anything".
Of course "nobody is doing anything" is standard and "nobody is doing nothing" is non-standard or dialectal. The latter is wrong according to normative grammar.
But I don't think redundancy or ambiguity are relevant issues here. There is no ambiguity for users of the dialect (or for any listener or reader, in practice). And avoidance of redundancy is not by any means always a priority. I believe double negatives like this are used as intensifiers. "Nobody is doing nothing" is more emphatic. It will often express outrage: something should be done, and nobody is doing anything. The multiple negativity intensifies the statement. It can even be triple: "Nobody ain't doing nothing".
I'm not holding this up for imitation, just endorsing what Dariusz and Richard have said.
...but they're usually unnecessary! In any given negative expression, one negative is usually enough, and will produce an unambiguous meaning that will be understandable to all. Adding a second negative may be done for reasons of stylme or emphasis, BUT is extremely risky in the hands of a non-native speaker, and can often lead to unintended ambiguity.
"The man was taken il, and everyone stood around doing nothing"
"The man was taken ill, and no-one did anything"
In an oral context, one might well hear "An' d'you know, nob'dy did nuffin' to help!" — in informal conversation, that passes well enough; but in written language (other than as reported speech), it stands out like a sore thumb.
Your two terms mean exact opposites, as Jack has correctly pointed out.
What you haven't told us is whether everyone is active - i.e., everyone is doing something, or 'everyone is doing nothing'.
Could you give us the sentence in which the term is to appear - and what it really means? The first expression could well be used colloquially, though technically wrong, but then colloquial speech often strays from the straight and narow path the 'prescriptive grammarian' would like to see trod...
Having said that, the first term - 'nobody is doing nothing' - is rather odd, and I'd say Jack may be right: but only you know...
Steven Pinker talks in detail about double negatives and prescriptive rules in his book, "The Language Instinct". Double negatives are frequently used in everyday conversation, so we can ask the question, "Who is right? Prescriptive grammarians or millions of people who use double negatives?".
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2 mins confidence: peer agreement (net): +9
nobody is doing nothing vs. nobody is doing anything
Nobody is doing anything. The other is wrong.
Explanation: If nobody is doing nothing, everyone must be doing something. And that is the opposite of the meaning you want.
Jack Doughty United Kingdom Local time: 12:15 Native speaker of: English PRO pts in category: 197