Don’t use double negatives

My last post referred to confusing multiple negatives. This one looks at the common grammatical problem of double negatives.

Have a look at this example:

WRONG
This Escrow Account Agreement expires if no money is not credited to the Escrow Account by 30 June.

Although this grammatical construction is correct in many languages, it is not correct in English. It was, however, common usage several centuries ago, and it still exists in colloquial English now. This explains well known examples such as “I can’t get no satisfaction” and “We don’t need no education”. But it is not correct in formal written English.

The grammatical concept is called “negative concord”. In languages that have negative concord, such as Spanish, Polish and Hungarian, the double negative intensifies the negation. However, in languages that do not have negative concord, such as Standard English and German, a double negative is understood to resolve into a positive.

So the above example technically means:

This Escrow Account Agreement expires if money is credited to the Escrow Account by 30 June.

In reality, of course, it is unlikely anyone would understand it this way, as it wouldn’t make any sense. But the sentence should be corrected as follows:

RIGHT
This Escrow Account Agreement expires if no money is credited to the Escrow Account by 30 June 2013.

 

If your first language is one with negative concord, it is a common mistake to translate literally and use double negatives in English. Try to avoid doing this.

Here are some more examples of the same mistake:

WRONG
At the same time I assured him that no evidence, either paper documents or electronic devices, was not taken away from the firm.
RIGHT
At the same time I assured him that no evidence, either paper documents or electronic devices, was taken away from the firm.

WRONG
Employees cannot be deprived of their right to compensation for overtime work neither unilaterally nor contractually.
RIGHT
Employees cannot be deprived of their right to compensation for overtime work either unilaterally or contractually.

WRONG
The group insurance agreement will be extended automatically if none of the Parties does not terminate it at least three months before the end of the year for which it was executed.
RIGHT
The group insurance agreement will be extended automatically if none of the Parties terminates it at least three months before the end of the year for which it was executed.

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