Confusing Multiple Negatives
: You! You can't lie
So tell me, puppet, where is Shrek? Pinocchio
: Uh, I don't know where he's not. Prince Charming
: You're telling me you don't know where Shrek is? Pinocchio
: It wouldn't be inaccurate to assume that I couldn't exactly not say that it is or isn't almost partially incorrect. Prince Charming
: So you do know where he is! Pinocchio
: On the contrary. I'm possibly more or less not definitely rejecting the idea that in no way with any amount of uncertainty that I undeniably— Prince Charming
: Stop it! Pinocchio
: ...do or do not know where he shouldn't probably be, if that indeed wasn't where he isn't. Even if he wasn't at where I knew he was...
A character deliberately chooses not to avoid
a convoluted series of negatives to trick a certain reaction out of another character. Usually done when the character has literally no reason not to just lie
to them 2
, unlike in the page quote where Pinocchio's nose won't not grow if he doesn't fail to evade the truth. 3
No matter how convoluted the question gets, the answer will always be treated as legally binding, despite any reasonable judge throwing half of these examples out.
It's not impossible 4
to make a Stealth Insult
with this type of dialogue, by failing to resist not avoiding insulting 5
someone in a way that they're incapable of being unoffended by 6
. Alternatively, as in a Sarcastic Confession
, it's not impossible 7
to not promise you didn't do 8
something while not appearing to avoid denying 9
it. This trope is not entirely unrelated to 10 Suspiciously Specific Denial
. Also not uncommon where Exact Words
isn't known not to be 11
in play. I Know You Know I Know
conveys a similar degree of semantic confusion. This is also not dissimilar 12
to No Means Yes
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Anime and Manga
- In the Cave Cricket episode of Haruhi Suzumiya, Kyon does this and lampshades it, asking himself how many negatives he just strung together (we counted 6).
- There's a FoxTrot stip where Paige tricks Peter into driving her to the mall by adding several "not"s to her statement ("Do you not want to take me to the mall?" "Yes." "Do you not not want to take me to the mall?" "No.") She outsmarts him by skipping from four to six "not"s.
- Bizarro is easy to understand, in theory: he says the opposite of what's true. Some writers don't seem to understand this absurdly simple concept, and have him speak in absurd chains of multiple-negatives, making it impossible to understand what he's trying to say. On top of that, he also varies from just backwards to stupid to actually evil, meaning that even if you figure out what he's supposed to be saying, it still might be the opposite of what's actually true. Damn it.
- It's harder than it sounds on the surface - imagine just saying his name. Equally qualifying for "Reverse of 'I am Bizarro,' with more Hulk Speak" are "Me no am Bizarro," "You am Bizarro," or even "You am not Bizarro."* Or any of the above, with "Superman" in place of "Bizarro," because Bizarro is the opposite of Superman! That's just saying his name. Now, imagine whole conversations with that logic, and each writer having a different idea of which of these to use. How do you not break the opposite-day rule and still have Bizarro make any sense at all? He is by nature the poster boy for this trope, and it's no wonder all television adaptations of him cast the whole idea to the four winds (though Superman: The Animated Series keeps the Hulk Speak.)
- Pops up surprisingly often in fanfiction— usually with a simple string of "not not not not not not whatever."
- From Harry Potter: Peeves: "Shan't say nothing if you don't say please." When Filch does say please... Peeves: "Nothing!"
- In Life, the Universe and Everything, Marvin uses it to compliment Trillian because he's so maniacally depressed that he can't be direct in praise. "That young girl is one of the least benightedly unintelligent life forms it has been my profound lack of pleasure not to be able to avoid meeting."
- One Clue tie-in book had Mr. Boddy, having suffered a blow to the head, speak in increasing amounts of negatives. Professor Plum decides that an even number of "No"s meant "yes" and an odd number meant "no", when it was clear from context that he just simply meant "no" every time.
- In The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo Baggins offers a classic example during his birthday-party speech: "I don't know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve!" This one is intentionally ambiguous. Tolkien describes some of the guests as trying to work out whether it came to a compliment.
- Not really ambiguous, just confusing: He doesn't know some of the guests even half as well as (he thinks) he should. And he also likes some of them less than (he thinks) they deserve. So on the whole it is a compliment, though the exact phrasing allows it to be a Stealth Insult against the Sackville-Bagginses, who are present.
- The satirical article "Babbage: The Language of the Future" by Tony Karp in Datamation magazine described a programming language with "only obvious deficiencies." Instead of the conventional "DO WHILE," it offered several novel loop statements, including the "DON'T DO WHILE NOT" loop, which would be "not executed if the test condition is not false (or if it's Friday afternoon)."
- The Perl programming language has the 'unless' keyword to test for the false value of a condition. This may occasionally lead to convoluted looking code; the book 'Programming Perl' written by the language's main creator notes that to avert this trope the 'unless' test can't use the 'else' keyword to create an alternate branch of the test.
- In Night Watch a major seizes on a young Nobby Nobbs' declaration that he "don't know nothing" to declare that he does know something. His colleague points out that this is true by the rules of arithmetic, but the conventions of city speech indicate that he's just being emphatic.
- The Duchess in Alice in Wonderland: "Be what you would seem to be — or, if you'd like it put more simply — Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise." *
Live Action TV
- There was a Cheers where Sam tried to use several negatives in a question to get Diane to agree to sleep with him.
- Jon Stewart's song about Hanukkah in A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift Of All contains one that doesn't seem to work as intended. "I wouldn't know from jolly / But it's not my least unfavourite time of year" doesn't work out positive. Then again, this may be a deliberate subversion.
- It's more like it doesn't work out either positive or negative, since "not my least unfavorite" doesn't really mean anything. Presumably an "unfavorite" would be anything other than a favorite, so how something can be the least unfavorite is dubious... and then it's not that.
- On the "Farthingale" episode of Life, Crews and fDani find out that the victim of the week was searching "not for the man not breaking the law, but for the man not not breaking the law." They eventually work it out.
- Chuck Noblet in Strangers with Candy, screwing with his students: "All right, anyone who doesn't not want to avoid passing the midterm exam, raise your hand now. ...Okay. Those of you who raised your hands will fail, as you requested."
- SWC likes this one; there's also Jerri's plaintive "Isn't that not what you don't want me not to do?" to her dead father, and the "moral" of the illiteracy episode: "Maybe it's time to stop not doing what you pretended you can do and can't, and start doing the thing that you can't do, but can no longer pretend that you can."
- In the Pushing Daisies episode "Window Dressed to Kill", Olive tries to mess with Ned's head by using complex sentences after being on the receiving end of this trope. First, however, she consults a book titled "The Double Negative: What You Shouldn't Not Know".
- In The Vicar of Dibley, Alice memorably breaks into a long discussion about butter, which ends in this convoluted line. It's more subtle by the fact that Alice is The Ditz, yet her whole side of the exchange is perfectly consistent, and the smarter Vicar ends up baffled.
Alice: Well, I can't believe the stuff that is not I Can't Believe It's Not Butter is not I Can't Believe It's Not Butter. And I can't believe that both I Can't Believe It's Not Butter and the stuff that I can't believe is not I Can't Believe It's Not Butter are both, in fact, not butter. And I believe... they both might be butter... in a cunning disguise. And, in fact, there's a lot more butter around than we all thought there was.
- In another episode, Jim's Verbal Tic leads him to announce over an intercom that "No no no no no parking is allowed in the upper field." Someone mistakes it for this trope, and asks him for some clarification as to whether or not he can actually park there or not.
- In Al TV, when "Weird Al" Yankovic "interviews" Eminem, he calls him out on a triple negative. "I don't owe nobody in my family nothin"
- That Mitchell And Webb Look has a scene with a creepy director discussing a nude scene with an actor that gets around to this:
Dan: I mean, you won't actually be filming my penis.
Director: Well, there are no guarantees in this business, Dan, but if there's one thing I can say, it's that I'll try and avoid being very unsurprised if your penis doesn't not get filmed and put on general release up and down the land.
- The Daily Show parodied Barack Obama's use of convoluted speech thusly: "But let me be clear: There's no way I would not unsupport the kind of project that this isn't."
- In Once Upon a Time in Saengchori no one knows what Jo Min Sung is trying to say about Yoo Eun Joo. At all.
- One episode of Horrible Histories had a Roman telling an early Christian she'd be hurled trough the air by a trebuchet by saying that the next person to be tortured was "Not not not not you, so it is you!"
- Hugh Abbot in The Thick of It: "I categorically did not knowingly not tell the truth, even though unknowingly I might not have done."
- Sheldon of The Big Bang Theory when he finally asks Amy to be his girlfriend:
Sheldon: I believe I would like to alter the paradigm of our relationship.
Amy: I'm listening.
Sheldon: With the understanding that nothing changes what so ever - physical or otherwise, I would not object to us no longer characterizing you as not my girlfriend.
Amy: Interesting, now try it without the quadruple negative.
- "If I Never Stop Loving You" by obscure Country Music singer David Kersh:
If I never stop loving you
Will you never start wanting me to?
Say you won't and that's what I'll do
For forever with a heart so true
If you'll start and end every day
Forever never wanting me to go away
All I'm ever gonna always do
Is never stop loving you
- Later lampshaded subtly in verse 2, which has the line "I mean everything I think I just said."
- XTC: I'm stupidly happy / No, nothing's not wrong
- In "1921" from Tommy: "You didn't hear it, you didn't see it, you won't say nothing to no one ever in your life."
- The chorus of Wes Carr's "You" does this:
You can have what I got 'cuz I don't got nothin'
Worth having if I ain't got you
You can take what you want 'cuz I don't want nothin'
I'm nothin' if I don't have you
- The Lemonheads' "Style", a sample lyric being "But I don't wanna not get stoned / So I'm not gonna not knock things down".
- Minutemen's "Maybe Partying Will Help" has the line "What about the people who don't have what I ain't got?".
- In one episode of I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again, the show is introduced thus:
Hatch: Yes, it's—or if I'm wrong again, it isn't—"I'm Not Sorry, I Won't Read That For the First Time." Which doesn't mean that Tim Brooke-Taylor, John Cleese, Graeme Garden, David Hatch, Jo Kendall and Bill Oddie aren't with you again. I'm almost negative about this.
Brooke-Taylor: David ... David's flipped again, everybody.
- From The Secret Of Monkey Island: "I won't not promise to avoid refraining from harming you."
- The anti-anti-antidote from the Kingdom Of Loathing: This is a cup of stuff that will un-un-unpoison you if you get un-unpoisoned.
- In the first Parappa The Rapper, Cheap Cheap raps that she "ain't got no time for nobody".
- In Marvel Ultimate Alliance, Thing confuses himself. What he says and what he means are complete opposites.:
"[The fact that beating up Rhino is fun (don't ask)
] don't mean I wouldn't rather have a face that don't look like a gravel road".
- Strong Bad's Cool Game For Attractive People: When you try to use the lighter on a person, Strong Bad says "I'd love to see him not not on fire, but not not not now.
- I Am An Insane Rogue AI does this in a very sneaky way; in one of the level-beginning speeches, the AI says "Your computer has not not yet been compromised. I promise!" The double-not is just a computing hiccup... right?
- Super Smash Bros. Brawl had an interesting one on the Smash Bros. Dojo, when discussing the Poke Ball Pokemon "Bonsly." In the original Japanese text, it was averted. But upon translation, a sentence said, "It's not like it can't be reflected." This left many readers confused as to whether or not Bonsly could be reflected, until a fan who could read Japanese told everyone what the original text said. *
- "It's not like (you have to do something/you can't do something/etc.)" is a common "it could be worse" type phrase, pointing out that whatever comes after the phrase ISN'T true (in this case, the idea that it's unreflectable is what's being pointed out as NOT the case.) Another way to say the same thing would be "At least it can be reflected." It's pretty sad to hear that native English-speakers were actually so confused by such a commonly-used phrase that they needed to look up the original Japanese just to figure it out...though given the checkered history of translations to English from Japanese, it's not impossible that some people might perceive an odd phrase as (potentially) a more serious glitch.
- Appeared once in Casey And Andy. Casey tries to trick the King of Sweden into leaving their couch by posing him a question with a ridiculous number of varied negatives. The king provides the correct answer without delay, once again proving that you should never underestimate a king.
- Especially funny considering that the king of Sweden is not known to be the brightest bulb in the Christmas tree.
- Used in this Sluggy Freelance strip, along with Blatant Lies and Suspiciously Specific Denial (pictured above).
- Penny Arcade, as part of an attempt to wring some money out of Tycho: "Do you really want to burden them with not that?"
- In Suicide for Hire, Hunter's father makes a (very successful) attempt to ensure his son's future heterosexuality by giving him a porn magazine and telling him "By the way, I don't not want you not watching not Channel 169 after midnight when we're out of the house."
- A Dilbert strip features the PHB giving Dilbert a document to fill out that features close to a dozen negatives regarding the state of his employment.
Dilbert: You're trying to trick us into quitting, aren't you?
Boss: Use ink.
- In The Last Days Of FOXHOUND, Mantis uses a magnificent one to highlight Ocelot's Double Reverse Quadruple Agent status:
Mantis: You must spend every day pretending to act like you're falsely letting on that you aren't not unbetraying someone you don't not purport to allegedly not work for but really do! How do you keep all this shit straight without having an aneurysm?
Ocelot [shrugging]: Practice.
- Kanaya of Homestuck.
GA: It Does Not Mean That Teamwork Is What Isnt Taking Place Here
AA: s0rry i didnt f0ll0w that
- An announcer on a radio station once announced something similar to "Senator So-and-so announced today that he's changed his mind about his decision to attempt to overrule the President's veto of the recent gun ban bill."
- This is very common on local resolutions and referenda. Voting "yes" on a public vote always means approving of the resolution, even if the resolution is stating a position against something. This results in very confusing situations where you must vote "yes" to say you don't like something, and doubt as to whether the public really understood the question, which can throw the outcome of the vote into doubt.
- One community had a vote on whether or not the city's public funds should help pay for a new hotel. But the text of the vote was something along the lines of "Should the city be prohibited from spending funds in this way?" so you actually vote "yes" if you think they should not pay for it...
- There is speculation that voter confusion had a part in the passing of California's Proposition 8. The proposition was to amend California's constitution to overrule the State Supreme Court's decision to allow same-sex marriage. A "Yes" vote meant that you were in favor of overruling the Court and therefore against same-sex marriage. A "No" vote meant you supported upholding the Court's decision and were in favor of same-sex marriage.
- Similar to the California's example, a recent Florida vote on same-sex marriage was worded in such a confusing manner that many people didn't know if voting yes was pro-same sex marriage or con.
- Averted in Boston (possibly Massachusetts as a whole), where guides widely published before elections detail exactly what each response means, and such information is usually/always stated plainly at the end of the question on the actual ballot, as well. Probably by law or something.
- Old joke. A governor has been in charge for so long, people want him out. So he starts a referendum: The "yes" is for him to stay and the "no" is for him to not resign.
- Even the official United States constitution can get like this, what with "no person who shall not have attained the age of [whatever] and who shall not have been a citizen for [x amount of years]] shall be eligible to run for [whatever office]. Makes reading the article annoying.
- London Mayor Boris Johnson won the 2004 Foot in Mouth award with this gem on Have I Got News for You: "I could not fail to disagree with you less."
- Averted in Old English, where multiple negatives just make it more emphatic, so you get sentences that translate to things like this: "They said that no kinsman wasn't dearer to them than their lord, and they wouldn't never follow his murderer."
- Multiple negatives are grammatically correct in Russian and other Slavic languages. So, when trying to say "I didn't see anyone," you have to say what would be translated as "I didn't see no one." This is a tame example. There are times when there can be upwards of five negatives in a Russian sentence when the same sentence would have only one negative in English.
- It can be more than five for Slavic languages. The following sentence in Polish is perfectly grammatical (and, more importantly, easily parsed by a native speaker), despite being unlikely to be used in this exact form: "Nikt nigdy nigdzie niczego nikomu nie zrobił", and it means "Nobody has ever done anything to anyone, anywhere" (word-by-word translation being "Nobody hasn't never, nowhere, done nothing to no-one". While confusing, it becomes easier when you realise that in Slavic languages, words like "anywhere", "anyone", "anything" are ALWAYS replaced by "nowhere", "no one", "nothing" etc. when used in a negative sentence. The number of negatives is irrelevant, every word needs to be negated - whereas one negative is enough to negate the whole sentence in English.
- Double negatives equating to English single negatives exist in French as well.
- A linguistics professor was lecturing to her class one day. "In English," she said, "A double negative forms a positive. In some languages, though, such as Russian, a double negative is still a negative. However, there is no language wherein a double positive can form a negative." A voice from the back of the class says, "Yeah, right."
- Even better than that: The voice actually belonged to philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser. (He's sometimes also quoted as "Yeah, yeah.")
- George Carlin told people, "I'm not unwell, thank you," when asked how he was. It usually took them a minute to figure it out.
- Spanish, like the Russian level above, is completely fine with double negatives. For example, the sentence "No té ayudaré nunca" translates as "I won't never help you," when it actually means "I will never help you." More than one negative adds emphasis, but it rarely, if ever, goes above two.
- Furthermore, while on the Spanish topic, a sentence like "No tengo nada" means "I don't have anything" but translates as "I don't have nothing". That happens because, while in English "negative + any" (I don't have anything) is not dissimilar from "positive + no" (I have nothing), the Spanish word "nada" serves the role of both the pronoun and noun "nothing" and the pronoun "anything", thus creating another case of double negative. Kinda makes you think that the Spanish language makes sure that a no remains a no.
- The very same problem occurs in Portuguese (unsurprising, given how similar the languages are).
- Bavarian, a Southern German dialect group, has this too. An example would be "Koana hot niamois ned koa Göid ned g'habt" which is "Nobody has never not no money not had".
- African-American Vernacular English, as well as several Southern dialects, have similar rules as above concerning double negatives, wherein "He ain't never been nowhere but here" is grammatically correct, with each additional negative either describing tense and aspect or simply intensifying the magnitude of the statement.
- Italian can have double negatives work as simple negatives as well. Sometimes you can avoid them ("Non c'č nessun problema/Non c'č alcun problema" both mean "There's no problem", but while "nessuno" implicates a negation and works just like "no one", "alcuno" doesn't and is similar to "anyone"); sometimes you can't ("Non vedo nessuno" would translate in "I don't see no one", while it actually means "I don't see anyone"). It's quite strange if one thinks that Italian is the direct descendant of Latin, and that Latin counts double negatives as positives: the Latin phrase "sine ulla spe" ("senza alcuna speranza" = "without hope") cannot be written as "sine nulla spe" ("without no hope") because it would radically change its meaning. Italian's use of negatives comes from Vulgar Latin, spoken by peasants ad illiterate people who probably wouldn't bother using the correct rules of the original language. Vulgar Latin became soon an almost independent language much more used than Classical Latin, and so its use of the negative form passed on to modern neo-Latin languages such as Spanish, French ad Italian itself.
- A comparatively simple example from the American Civil War: Congressman Thaddeus Stevens' "retraction" about something he said about Lincoln's first minister of war, fellow Pennsylvania Republican Simon Cameron (accused of corruption) after Cameron objected: "I said that Cameron would not steal a red-hot stove. I now take that back."
- After NFL quarterback Brett Favre announced his retirement and then changed his mind three years in a row, it became a common joke for sportswriters to predict his next "un-un-retirement" or similar.
- The linguistics blog Language Log has quite a few posts about "overnegations" and "misnegations" — sentences where the multiple negatives are so confusing that even the speaker wasn't able to untangle them correctly. This is a good example.
- The word "nonfiction" can be confusing for young children when they first hear it. "Fiction" means "not true," while "nonfiction" means "not not true."
- Many pigdin or creole languages are much more accepting of double negatives than their parent languages, and the double negatives are often the standard way of saying "no".
- Antidisestablishmentarianism. Basically, being against being against the Church of England as the "official" church of Ireland.
- Outside its other weird and confusing properties Hungarian also has a penchant for using negative pronouns with negative verb forms. To use an easy example: Semmit se csináltam. means I did nothing. / I didn't do anything. but translated word-by-word I didn't do nothing.. Yes, in these cases actual double or multiple negatives can be technically triple and n+1 negatives for all the non-native speakers utter bafflement.