In Shakespeare's time, double and even triple negatives could be used to strengthen a negative (see e.g. Is Shakespeare's Double Negative Grammatically Wrong? on English SE). In present-day Standard English, you should not use double negatives unless you want express a positive statement, or intensify the opposite of the negative statement. (An example of the latter would be 'You canNOT NOT go to your father's funeral', as mentioned in a comment by Sibutlasi.)

The disappearance of negative concord in Standard English is sometimes claimed to be a result of the work of prescriptive grammarians in the 18th century, for example Robert Lowth's book A Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762). Negative concord has survived in dialects, see e.g. Negative Concord on the website of the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project.

I wonder if any language with a written record ever went into the opposite direction. Is there any language whose written records show that it acquired negative concord? (There may be languages that acquired it before they started being written down, but in that case, we would need to rely on descriptions of the oral language by users of other languages.)

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    By the way, I'm not really convinced it's true that "The disappearance of negative concord in Standard English appears to be a result of the work of prescriptive grammarians in the 18th century". To me, that seems to be attributing too much power to prescriptivists. Lowth says of Shakespeare "It is a relique of the antient style, abounding with Negatives; which is now grown wholly obsolete". He doesn't say "People nowadays still talk like this, but they're wrong because of logic." Obviously negative concord never became fully obsolete, but it seems plausible it might have diminished naturally. Jan 17, 2017 at 22:02
  • @sumelic Thanks. What I wrote about Lowth was mainly based on this page about Early Modern English, which says, e.g. 'Lowth was the main source of such "correct" grammar rules as a double negative always yields a positive, never end a sentence with a preposition and never split an infinitive.'
    – Tsundoku
    Jan 17, 2017 at 22:40
  • I mean, it's possible Lowth is the (main) source, but as I said, I'm just not convinced. That page is a very general overview that probably has some simplifications or mistakes. Dryden apparently complained in 1672 about sentences ending with prepositions, and the Wikipedia article on split infinitives says “such a rule [prohibiting split infinitives] is not to be found in Lowth's writing and is not known to appear in any other text prior to the mid-19th century”. Jan 17, 2017 at 22:51
  • It is not quite true either that double negations have disappeared from the standard language or that the purpose of a second negative morpheme is/was to strengthen a simple negation. In cases like 'Come on, John, You canNOT NOT go to your father's funeral', for example, which is grammatical, neither of those two propositions is true.
    – user6814
    Jan 18, 2017 at 13:40
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    @jlawler: According to Johan van der Auwera & Lauren Van Alsenoy, negative concord does not actually seem to be the most common strategy. Structures like "I want nothing", where negation is expressed only on a pronoun, are rare, but many languages use the "I don't want anything" strategy, or an "I don't want something" strategy, where clausal negation is combined with an indefinite word that doesn't always have a negative meaning outside of this construction. Jan 19, 2017 at 6:58

1 Answer 1


I believe that the ne...pas construction of French is post-Old French so that would be an example. Arabic (not all dialects) developed the negative concord element subsequent to earlier written Classical Arabic.

  • Pas was originally positive, meaning "a step"; it acquired a negative meaning through Jesperson's Cycle. I don't think I'd call it proper negative concord.
    – Draconis
    Jan 17, 2017 at 23:29
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    Are you thinking that the question is about languages where the concord element was initially itself negative?
    – user6726
    Jan 17, 2017 at 23:45
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    You can say the same about the Arabic example. š is from classical šay' "thing"; in its use as a negative it corresponds exactly to rien < rem.
    – fdb
    Jan 18, 2017 at 0:13
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    @Draconis: "pas" is negative in modern French. Aside from the common colloquial omission of "ne" from verbal negation, "pas" is used as the only negator in standard French in fragments like Pas mal! "Not bad!" The noun "pas" is pretty much completely differentiated as a lexical item. Jan 18, 2017 at 1:05
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    Thanks, but I was hoping for something more solid than "I believe ...".
    – Tsundoku
    Jan 19, 2017 at 11:03

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