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Common Double Negatives to Avoid in Writing

In some lucky languages, the more negatives the better. In English, however, two negatives are a no-no. Some double negatives are obvious, but here you learn about some of the sneaky double-negatives that might be waiting to trip you up.

I cannot help but think this rule is dumb

One of the most common double negatives doesn’t look like one: cannot help but. How many times have you heard someone say something like

Eggworthy cannot help but act in that dramatic style because he was trained by a real ham.

Unfortunately, this sentence is wrong because it contains a double negative. The not (inside the word cannot) and the but both express negative ideas. Use one or the other. Don’t use both. Here is the correct version:

Eggworthy cannot help acting in that dramatic style because he was trained by a real ham.

If you think this is one in a long list of useless grammar rules, think again. A double-negative mistake can completely wreck your sentence because in English, two negatives make a positive. So when you say cannot help but, you actually convey the opposite of what you imagine you’re saying (or writing). For example:

Max told his boss, “I cannot help but ask for a raise.”
What he thinks he said: I have to ask for a raise.
What he really said: I can’t ask for a raise.
The boss told Max, “I cannot help but say no.”
What the boss thinks she said: No.
What the boss actually said: Yes.

I can’t hardly understand this rule

No matter what you do, avoid saying or writing can’t hardly when you’re using formal English. Can’t is short for cannot, which contains the negative not. Hardly is another negative word. If you combine them, by the logic of grammar, you’ve said the opposite of what you intended. Here are a few examples:

Roger commented, “Lulu can’t hardly count her tattoos.”
What roger thinks he said: Lulu can’t count her tattoos.
What roger actually said: Lulu can count her tattoos.
According to Lola, Ella can’t hardly wait until her divorce becomes final.
What the writer thinks the sentence means: Ella is eager for her divorce to become final.
What the sentence actually means: Ella can wait. (The palace is comfy and Larry isn’t around very much.)

A variation of this double negative is can’t scarcely, aren’t scarcely, or isn’t scarcely. Once again, can’t is short for cannot, clearly a negative. Aren’t and isn’t are the negative forms of are and is. Scarcely is also negative. Use them together and you end up with a positive, not a super-negative.

I hadn't but one rule on double-negatives

Here’s another double negative, in a couple of forms: hadn’t only, haven’t only, hasn’t only, hadn’t but, haven’t but, and hasn’t but. All express positive ideas because the not (n’t) part of the verb and the only or but are both negatives:

Wrong: Al hadn’t but ten seconds to defuse the bomb before civilization as we know it ended.
Why it’s wrong: As it reads now, the sentence says that Al had more than ten seconds to defuse the bomb, but the little red numbers on the trigger were at seven and decreasing rapidly.
Right: Al had but ten seconds to defuse the bomb before civilization as we know it ended.
Also right: Al had only ten seconds to defuse the bomb before civilization as we know it ended.
Wrong: Roger hasn’t only ten nuclear secrets.
Why it’s wrong: The sentence now says that Roger has more than ten secrets, but he just counted them and there are ten.
Right: Roger has only ten nuclear secrets.
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