Bill Vallicella at Maverick Philosopher raised an interesting point a few days ago on a common point of grammar: double negatives. The very interesting point he makes is whether or not the word “no” in double negative constructions – his example is the Rolling Stones’ line “I can’t get no satisfaction” – is not truly signifying negation but rather an intensifier.

What he means is that “no” here is functioning differently than its literal usage. To support his case, Vallicella turns to a subset of adverbs called intensifiers – words that modify an adjective or adverb in order to intensify or emphasize the content. When we give our condolences to someone who is grieving by saying, “I am very sorry for your loss,” very functions as an intensifier. Vallicella contends (and I happen to agree) that there are some such adverbs which do not add to or change the content of the adjective or adverb they modify; he gives the example of saying something is “absolutely true,” which I find somewhat contentious*, but I can think of other examples which take the general principle: “absolutely perfect,” for instance. (“Perfect” is an absolute adjective here; we should always stray from saying that something is more perfect than something else or the most perfect such-and-such. Therefore, “absolutely” merely emphasizes the absolute nature of “perfect” but does not materially change the meaning.)

Vallicella also brings up another common construction, the use of “literally” as a non-literal intensifier. I hear this all the time, especially when an individual is using figurative language: “I am literally going to lose my mind.” To ‘lose one’s mind’ is idiomatic; we do not generally mean that a person will actually forfeit their mental faculties (even if we do mean to signify loss of sanity). What this statement means is something like “I am really going to lose my mind.” In this case, it is not only true that the intensifier in question does not change the meaning of the word it modifies, but it is also devoid of the meaning it would carry in practically any other context. Its use is thereby merely emphatic.

Such usage is common, and we understand it in the same way we understand idioms – by taking the sentence as a whole to determine its meaning rather than looking at its constituent parts. As a proponent of the descriptive view of language, I think this is valid. In a similar way, constructions like:

I can’t get no satisfaction.

I ain’t got no money.

I ain’t got nothing to say to you.

are meaningful because we understand them as simple negatives rather than true double negative constructions. (Vallicella gives an excellent example of a valid double negative construction: “It is not uncommon…”) They are of course nonstandard, however, so they should not be used in situations that call for standard usage.

I think that on linguistic descriptivism, such analysis of common language could be easily facilitated. Thinking of language in this way would make it easier to see how individuals really use language by a different set of grammatical rules, and that would make language study much more rewarding for students.

*What I find contentious about the example of that I do not think it is obviously true that any sentence that could be said to be “absolutely true” can only be wholly true, in which case the modifier would be redundant. For instance, if I say, “It’s March, and Easter is always in April,” it could be said that the sentence is partially true in the sense that one propositional statement contained within – “It’s March” – is true, while the other is not. This multi-faceted aspect of sentences makes the point about the absoluteness of truth contentious, in my opinion.