By far the most shock and awe was generated last week by responses to this Language Awareness Survey question (#4):
True or False:
In English, the sentence “I didn’t do nothing” means “I did do something.”
Nearly half (46 people out of 99) responded that this is “true.”
The comments (on Facebook and under the blog post) generally matched my own curious feelings:
What’s with the answer to question 4???!?!?
#4’s divided answered really shocked me!!
Friends I saw face-to-face also expressed surprise of the same general nature: What in the world is going on with question 4?
My surprise continued when commentary specifically addressed the reasons for the vast quantity of “true” responses. Some people noted that this is a colloquial or vernacular or AAVE (African American Vernacular English) expression.
Interesting to see that the toughest question was about the colloquial “didn’t do nothing”.
“I didn’t do nothing.” Okay, we know what it means in the current vernacular.
If one reads this with an AAVE pronunciation, one would recognize the meaning of this construction in that variety of English as a negative construction.
And, even before I tabulated the results, one responder had commented:
When you say “English” does it mean English language proper or does it mean our American English which is so flexible?
This suggests that if the question had inserted “Colloquially” or “In Flexible American English” rather than, “In English” people may have answered differently.
What if the question had been worded this way instead: Try it!
Commenters also mentioned a different issue: Someone could use this statement with a certain emphasis on the word nothing and that would yield the (non-colloquial) meaning, I did do something:
I’ve definitely used the phrase “I didn’t do nothing; I finally figured X out!” when I came home from a writing session with nothing written, for example.
So, maybe this was just an inacurrate representation of a certain way of speaking English?
What if the question used a quote that was a more commonly recognized representation of the colloquialism/vernacular/ethnic variety that is being hinted at in the question? Consider, for example, if we re-asked #4 this way, keeping “In English,” but changing the quotation (take the poll!):
The elusive question #4 not only presents a stilted version of some mysterious “vernacular” but also insinuates that some pure, unitary form of “English” is relevant when making a meaningful judgment.
But, problems aside, the nearly 50/50 answer split opened a discussion and raised our awareness: What’s the difference between (to use the descriptions of one Facebook commenter) “Our Flexible American English” and “English Proper”? What kinds of “double negatives” do you use? What kinds are you aware of? What counts as a good/fun/interesting/smart/illuminating example of a double negative? Post your comments here!