Can Two Positive Words Ever Be Negative?

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How can two positive words produce a negative meaning?

Or perhaps more accurately: Is this even possible?

Alert reader Mahih Pouryaghma asks about this, prompted by my recent article on “I could/couldn’t care less.”

Two Positive Words

People used to say (and some still say) “I couldn’t care less” to mean “I have no interest in this matter.”

Lately, as I noted, more people say “I could care less” to mean the same thing.

Which makes no logical sense, since “I could care less” means – literally – “I have some interest in this matter.” That certainly isn’t what we mean when we say it.

Some authorities (as I noted) justify “I could care less” by suggesting that the intent is sarcastic. It’s like saying “Yeah, right!” when what we mean is “No way!” or “Not on your life!”

Which elicited the following insightful and timely question from Mahin:

“How is it that two positive words such as yeah and right, when they are said together like ‘yeah, right!’ become negative?

“I know that 2 negative words become positive, 2 positive words remain positive, and one positive word and one negative word become negative , or at least this is how I remember from when I was in high school. Explain it to me!”

Thanks for a great question, Mahin.

In English, the principle you have stated is generally true. But it’s subject to at least two conditions: (1) We’re assuming the speaker is speaking literally; and (2) we’re disregarding the tone.

Either of these elements can change the meaning. They can throw this “rule” right out the window.

Suppose I say “I’m not feeling badly.” The “not” and the “badly” are negatives that cancel each other out. This produces, as you say, a positive – an affirmation.

In this case, and in many similar cases, the affirmation is somewhat weak. It’s not quite the same as saying “I feel great!” “Not bad” is more like “okay” or “things could be worse”. It’s an understatement.

Similarly, “that statement isn’t incorrect” is not quite the same as saying “that’s absolutely right!” It’s more likely to mean “that statement is partially true” or “technically true”. Or it could mean simply that the statement is meaningless – neither true nor false.

In these cases, the double negatives produces a positive (albeit a weak one) because we’re taking it literally.

The positive meaning produced by a literal double negative isn’t always weak. If I say “I can’t not go to sleep”, the point is that sooner or later, I must and will fall asleep.

Likewise, “We shouldn’t not pay our bills” means simply that we should pay our bills. In these cases, the positive meaning is strong – but still literal.

But when Mick Jagger wails “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”, this certainly doesn’t mean he’s getting satisfaction. (Maybe in real life, he is. After all, it’s just a song!)

The point is, “can’t get no” in this case is colloquial speech. We aren’t supposed to take it literally. It’s “grammatically incorrect” in formal speech. Although one could argue that here, in this context, and for this artistic purpose, it’s not incorrect. Would that song have been a hit had it been titled “I Can’t Get Any Satisfaction”?

But the other factor I mentioned is tone. Especially when one’s tone is sarcastic. That’s what’s in play here, in the case you asked about.

If you call to tell me I’ve just won the lottery, I might say “Yeah, right!” meaning “I don’t believe you.” Or you might say “I’m coming over to take away all your chocolates.” My reply, “Yeah, right! meaning “You and what army?”

Even in these instances, the literal meaning of “yeah, right” is a double positive. It says “absolutely correct!” This isn’t a violation of the positive-negative “rule”. It’s not even an exception to it.

It’s just that anything we say sarcastically is intended to convey the opposite of what it literally says.

And it’s not, please note, a question of the number of words. “Double” (or single or multiple) has nothing to do with it where sarcasm is concerned.

If you ask, “Gary, can you bench-press 500 pounds?” I’m likely to reply “Sure!” – but in a tone of incredulity while giving you a funny look. I’m still being sarcastic, and meaning “No way!”

Or maybe I say, “Let’s elect Goofy as our next President.” You reply, “Oh, wow, Gary, what a terrific idea! That’s a fantastic plan! That’s sure to solve all our national problems.”

On second thought, that last example ain’t no good. No goofy candidate could ever come within miles of being actually nominated for President by any major party.

Back on point: Languages like English, where double negatives cancel out, producing a literally positive meaning, are said to have “negative concord”. Such languages include Spanish, Persian, and many others.

However, there are languages where double or multiple negatives reinforce each other. In these, the more you say no, the more you mean no. The latter group includes Latin and German.

To sum up: Double positive words can carry a negative meaning – but generally only where they are expressed with sarcasm.

(This article is part of my series on words that are #worth1000pictures.)

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