1. souse, n.5: 3. A drunkard. slang (chiefly U.S.). (OED)
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Monday, August 3, 2009

Two wrongs *do* make a right: (Why I can't never stand the double negative rule)

Everyone (even those, like me, who got a "d" in grade school grammar) knows that a negative proposition can only have one negation -- whether it be a "no," "never" or "not." What we don't usually learn is that it's one of the strange quirks of our relatively young language. Back in Shakespeare's England, the only English grammars that existed were written for and in Latin and Greek. But during the seventeenth century, an increasing number of anglophiles began to try and re-frame our language on logical principles. Never mind the profoundly illogical and contingent nature of language (especially ours); in a time when Aristotle and gnat-straining scholastics still held great sway, logic, however twisted, still ruled the day.

In love with the purported rationalism of Latin, and apparently fearing that two wrongs might be mistaken for a right, seventeenth-century grammarians argued against the double negative, with the codification of this rule credited to Anglican clergyman Robert Lowth's 1762 Short Introduction to English Grammar (at least, according to Wikipedia).

But there's nothing better (or at least, isn't nothing worse) than a double negative for emphasizing your negation. Speaking in terms of language theory, it's certainly worse to mistake a negative for a positive than a positive for a negative ("don't shoot!") and the double negative builds in enough redundancy to make sure your point gets across (unless you're admirer of the good Bishop Lowth). That seems to be the principle followed by the romance languages -- and you, too, if you've ever peppered your conversation with a n'est pas?

On the other hand, if it hadn't been for Lowth, we wouldn't have found so much not unattractive about the venerable litotes, including the close of this Flying Circuit skit:

I have a memory of Terry Jones yelling "Litotes" in some other skit but can't seem to find it.

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