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How to Teach Students About Using Double Negatives

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Do you find your class using double negatives in their writing? Whilst sometimes double negatives work well, often children use them inaccurately. This break from standard English can cost them marks in exams and ruins the clarity of their work.

Directly teaching students what double negatives are prevents the misconception before it becomes a problem. Using famous examples from songs and poems lets them see how ambiguous a double negative can be. Editing their own work will show them how to improve the clarity of their writing.

Contents:
  1. What Are Double Negatives?
  2. Famous Examples of Double Negatives
  3. Why Are Double Negatives a Problem?
  4. How to Stop Your Students Using Double Negatives
  5. Stopping Double Negatives in Your Classroom

What Are Double Negatives?

A double negative is a non-standard sentence or phrase that contains two negative words. They were commonly used in Old and Middle English to strengthen a negative meaning. This remains true in many languages and dialects around the world.

You can form a negative using different word classes, such as:

  • a negative verb, e.g. did not, was not, do not, have not, cannot
  • a negative adverb, e.g. no, not, never, hardly, rarely
  • a negative pronoun, e.g. no one, nobody, nothing

In standard English, the two negatives cancel each other out giving a weakened positive. When used intentionally they are known as litotes. We can use these intentional double negatives for subtlety or comedic effect, such as saying, She’s not unattractive or, I’m not disinclined to accept.

Famous Examples of Double Negatives

Poems and songs are littered with double negatives. They are often used because of their ambiguous nature.

Famous songs include:

  • "We Don’t Need No Education!" by Pink Floyd
  • "Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone" by Bill Withers
  • "It’s Not Unusual" by Tom Jones
  • "(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction" by the Rolling Stones
  • "Ain’t No Mountain High Enough" by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell

Poems and song lyrics often knowingly use double negatives to suggest different meanings and allow multiple interpretations.

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Why Are Double Negatives a Problem?

Double negatives can be difficult to understand when reading children’s writing. The usage is ambiguous and depends on the context of the sentence. This makes them confusing to read.

For example, you could read the double negative You don’t got no money in ways that suggest different meanings:

  1. Intensifying the negative of having no money. The person is desperately poor.
  2. Used in error (or to purposefully suggest an ignorance of correct English) instead of the word ‘any’. The person literally hasn’t any money.
  3. Subtly suggesting the opposite is true. The person does have some money.
  4. For comedic value to show the complete opposite is true. The person is very wealthy.

The biggest problem with double negatives in student writing is the lack of intonation and emphasis found in their speech. This can make it hard to identify if it is being used deliberately or in error. This gives an impression of limited understanding of English.

Double negatives are particularly difficult for children learning English as an additional language. In many countries they use them as the standard. This can make it difficult for them to unpick the true meaning behind the sentence.

How to Stop Your Students Using Double Negatives

Whilst your class may try to use them intentionally for effect, it's more likely they're using them in error. Targeting this common misunderstanding early on is an easy way to prevent a problem forming. Let's look at three simple ways to stop your class from using double negatives in their writing.

1: Direct Teaching

Prevent the problem before it appears by directly teaching your class about double negatives and their confusing meanings. Add a negative symbol or colour as a way of dual coding. Look at negatives in maths and remind the children of the rule that ‘two negatives make a positive’.

Oxford Dictionaries has this great YouTube video that you could use with your class to explain double negatives.

Look at examples of sentences and discuss how they could be interpreted in many ways. Say the sentence using different intotation to emphasise parts of the sentence. Draw pictures or use role play to highlight possible meanings.

Rewrite sentences to remove double negatives and discuss the effect this has on the reader. ProWritingAid’s grammar check is useful for students editing their own writing. They could even take sentences and add double negatives to see the effect.

2: Quizzes and Games

Double negatives can easily become another boring rule to remember. Make the learning fun by using a quiz or game to keep your class interested. Websites such as Kahoot let teachers quickly build their own quizzes to use in lessons.

Make the learning as practical as possible by getting your students actively engaged. They could:

  • Cut and match sentences together
  • Highlight and underline negative words
  • Sort sentences into groups
  • Work as teams to rewrite sentences
  • Use role play and drama to act out meanings
  • Create presentations or e-resources
  • Write a quiz for a friend

Grammar rules don’t need to be dull. Look for ways to make the learning interesting to help them remember the rules around double negatives.

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3: Use Popular Culture

Is there anything more exciting for students than using popular culture in the classroom? Embrace examples of double negatives from films, songs and poems to look at how ambiguous they can be. Get your students re-writing these examples and discuss why double negatives work well in poems but not in other types of writing.

Zoom in on a single sentence from a film script or song lyrics and gather ideas about the possible interpretations of the author’s intent. Zoom out to include sentences that add context to the overall piece. Does their reading of the sentence change when they know more about who is speaking?

Stopping Double Negatives in Your Classroom

Whilst double negatives can be used skilfully in literature, classroom examples tend to be in error. The lack of clarity and often unintentional effects can damage the credibility of a whole piece of writing. This can easily cost a student marks in an exam by appearing to lack basic understanding of grammar.

Making sure students understand double negatives means they'll be used effectively. Double negatives are a fantastic tool for comedic effect or to make a subtle point, but it takes time and direct teaching to understand them. Challenging their use by students in their writing ensures they only use them when they have an understanding of their impact.

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Helly Douglas
UK Writer and Teacher

Helly Douglas is a UK writer and teacher, specialising in education, children, and parenting. She loves making the complex seem simple through blogs, articles, and curriculum content. You can check out her work at hellydouglas.com or connect on Twitter. When she’s not writing, you will find her in a classroom, being a mum or battling against the wilderness of her garden - the garden is winning!

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