Grammar Paranoia and the Double Negative Dilemma

Hello, everybody. My name is Joanna, and I suffer from Grammar Paranoia.

I had a fit today. The potential error beamed out of the screen at me like a beacon, gloating at my lack of perspicacity. I immediately showed the typical first symptoms: increased heart rate, shivering, and battering my forehead with the palm of my hand. Then I broke out in a cold sweat. I dropped everything I was doing, and trawled through grammar guides, gnawing anxiously at my fingernails as my stomach did somersaults. Should I really have written “Me, Beyoncé and the hideous hag”? Wouldn’t “Beyoncé, the hideous Hag and I” have been better? (At least I hadn’t forgotten the comma that saves Beyoncé from being a hideous hag. Or does it?) Welcome to the mess I call my brain.

Grammar police

An example of what MM is capable of doing. (Photo credit: the_munificent_sasquatch)

As I have already mentioned on this blog, I am a fully paid-up member of the Punctuation Police. I come out in spots and start muttering obscenities under my breath when I spot a greengrocer’s apostrophe. I tell shop owners in hushed tones that there is a spelling mistake “just here“, whilst my children burn up with embarrassment – they don’t understand that a spelling mistake is as embarrassing as having a bogey hanging out of your nostril. So when I find a mistake in my own writing, I chew off my own arms in despair.

The grammar guides were formal: “I” is used for a subject, and “ME” for an object. So why did my instinct say “ME”? Before my parents threw out the telly, the first BBC educational programme I used to watch as a child was called “You and Me“. Could the BBC have knowingly given their programme a name that was a grammatical minefield? Wouldn’t the Grammar Gestapo have screamed blue murder and burned their dictionaries in front of the BBC’s offices if it had been wrong?

My grammar paranoia turned into an internet hunt using the term “me and you”. It resulted in an impressive list of references to films, books and songs, including that great song, “Me and You and a Dog Named Blue“. I doubt it would have been a hit if he’d sung “You and I and a dog named Blue”. And what about Me and Mrs Jones? Would they still have had a “thing” going on if he’d waffled, “Mrs Jones and I are having a spiffing little fling” instead?

This set me off on a new track about the liberties that the music and film world take by breaking grammatical rules. One of these things is the extremely common double negative. There ain’t no getting rid of that dang double negative. No, siree.

When I switch on the radio and sashay my way around the kitchen, everything goes fine until that fateful moment when the singer spits out that double negative, and I spit my coffee over the hob. Puff Daddy drives me nuts with his eyebrow-raising title “Can’t nobody hold me down“. Nor will I waste any time listening to Justin Timberlake whimpering “I ain’t got no money, I ain’t got no car…” in his song “The way I are”. (I’m sure there must be some deep, philosophical explanation for that conjugation of the verb “to be” apart from it maybe rhyming with “car”, but I ain’t got no time to look, as Justin would say). And last but not least… tadaaaah… our friend Beyoncé. Not only is she the “most beautiful mother in the world”, but she achieves an absolute best of four negatives in her song “Get me bodied”. (Whatever that means. I’ve heard of disembodied, but not bodied). “I ain’t worried, doing me tonight, a little sweat ain’t never hurt nobody“. OK, we’ll take your word for it, Mrs B.

Beyonce Awesome Reaction

Beyoncé during her Olympic quadruple negative exploit (Photo credits: Giphy)

Yet modern-day singers are just continuing an age-old tradition – some of the best singers in history sang to us in double negatives. When Louis Armstrong warbled “I ain’t got nobody”, nobody got their grammar knickers in a twist about the fact that two negatives make a positive, so if he “didn’t have nobody”, he actually had somebody.

It’s too late for me. I’ve tried, tried and tried again, but when I hear Mick Jagger singing that he can’t get no satisfaction, I feel like washing his cavernous mouth out with soap and sending him to bed with a grammar book. If I’d been at Islington Green School when they asked the pupils to sing for Pink Floyd, I’m pretty sure that my mother would have tied me to a chair at home then hammered some sense into the authors with a heavy copy of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Imagine being a copy editor way back then and finding the lyrics of “Another Brick in the Wall” in your inbox. I would have needed a double dose of Xanax just to get over the opening line, “We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control”. If Joe Bloggs had written these lyrics instead of Pink Floyd, his masterpiece of bad grammar would have been arrested and put in Pedant’s Prison on multiple charges of taking the English language in vain.

I’ve scratched my head a lot about this, and have decided that singers sacrifice good language use to achieve a familiar, “boy next-door who’s just fallen out of the pub and thrown up beside you on the pavement” style of speaking. So, snot fair. We bloggers ain’t got no right to artistic licence wiv grammar, but them singers duz.

I have gone back to my post and changed the title to something less worrying. I’m sure that Muphry’s Law will apply here, and someone will find at least one mistake somewhere in my diatribe about other people’s mistakes. So be it. A little humility ain’t never hurt nobody. Now I’m off for a little lie down – I ain’t got no energy left.

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59 thoughts on “Grammar Paranoia and the Double Negative Dilemma

  1. Does one break out in a cold sweat or break into one? Or out into one. Dilemmas indeed. I write plenty of posts that are not technically accurate but they serve to get the message across and are readable. Literals (mine) get up my nose, so I always go back and change them, and cringe realising that other people have already read them. Doesn’t matter how many times you proof read, there is always one.

    • From what I can see in the dictionary, you can break “into” or break “out in” a cold sweat, both are correct. But I ain’t gonna break out into no cold sweat about it, no siree. I’ve got a thing about “literally” when it’s used too much – great grammar fiends seem too think alike. MMD (my dad) is often the person who quietly points out the bloopers that make it through the editing filter.

  2. I am so thankful you are not editing my book. The present Editor, bless her soul, is trying her best to introduce me to the correct English as she progresses. I’m afraid she is making as little headway as my English teacher at school made. I’m so pleased to read you are blessed with arms that regrow, you seem to chew yours off often. Loved this post, but in a way hated it as it reminded me on how bad my English really is… maybe I can claim to be a song writer??

    • Why? I’m a very kind editor, Bulldog. I never bite authors. I only ever chew my own arms off (and they do grow back if I water them with beer from time to time).
      From what I can see, song-writers make a lot more money than any other writers, so maybe you should branch out into animal song (someone already started with “Who let the dogs out?”, and “What does the fox say?”

  3. I literally ain’t never read something I couldn’t not agree with so much… admittedly, I don’t spend as much time checking my grammar for my blog as I should, but when I used to write properly I was constantly scanning the internet trying to get my head around various rules and regulations.

    • There’s a punctuation policeman somewhere deep inside you if you used to check your grammar and spelling… What gets me is that the longer you look at something, the more the doubt sets in – then you waste hours of your time researching it on “Tinternet”, only to find that you were right all along. The last time I did that, the rest of the world was living life to the full whilst MM was trying to track down the reason why the verb “to prove” has two possible past participles.

  4. When I was at school, learning English grammar was not the trendy, right-on thing to do. I can’t remember the pathetic excuse the education establishment came up with, but they definitely got it wrong! I wish I had had a more thorough education as it would have saved a lot of time and trouble later on. Especially as an English teacher and writer of educational resources based on grammar!

    • I learned (or learnt, huh 🙂 ) grammar through getting my wrists slapped at school – as a result, I knew when something was wrong, but generally had no idea why it was wrong. I only really got my head around explaining the nuts and bolts of grammar when I went into teaching English as a foreign language.
      You’re writing resource material, are you? Now I understand why things had gone so quiet on your blog 🙂

    • Here! Here! I suffered the same neglect. The elite all girl prep school (expensive!) I attended most certainly should have slapped my wrists. At the time, I guess it wasn’t in vogue. In their defense, I was very distracted and I never did my homework but I read EVERYTHING obsessively. Unfortunately, reading a lot didn’t help. I really needed someone to be explicit with me about right from wrong. As a child, I had educational testing done and they said I was a very “high level thinker” and could accomplish “anything… with a secretary.” How does one just magically get a secretary? As they say- the devil is in the details. I love language and I SO humiliated by my many mistakes.
      Also, I just found another error in my first blog post. Ha! Cringing! I am a hands-on learner. I guess there is no getting around this embarrassment. I must do to improve.

  5. Remember parsing exercises?
    We were taught the whys and wherefores of grammar and usage…but the super staff of the english department also pointed out that knowing the nuts and bolts was just a tool to enable you to use language to express meaning and meaning took priority.

    I suspect that the performers you name have skipped the parsing part of the process though….

    • I escaped parsing – I think I had similar teachers to the ones Sarah refers to. I’d say that the performers in question sing for an audience who aren’t too bothered about good grammar, because they don’t know it or don’t worry about it. It’s amazing how much crap singers can get away with in a song if they have 1) taken enough clothes off and 2) have a good enough beat to distract everyone’s attention 😀

  6. Another obsession MM? You must shudder when you read some of my offerings!! Incidentally,does it give you angry palpitations every time you type the word ‘onesie’ and the spell check highlights it with that little wavy red line?! 😉 xx

    • It is an obsession, Miss Welly. My kids quake in their boots when I see a mistake (I was inches from taking down a sign in French at Aldi the other day, because I’ve had a spelling mistake in my face for over six months now and I’m losing patience).
      “Onesie” is a fabulous word that has a special place in my collection of favourite words. I love “onesie”, whatever that correction gadget says. Language evolves, and that’s normal – always has done, always will. But the double negative is backpedalling through the gates of grammatical hell. Brrrr.

  7. Commas are my Bête Noire…not the eats,shoots & leaves thing but the ones you need to break up long spindly sentences in order to make them more readable. I used to spend hours over where to put them for best effect but have now come to realise that life’s too short and mostly don’t bother anymore. My real bone of contention though is when people write your instead of you are and their instead of there or vice versa. That really does get under my skin, closely followed by websites, menus,signage and anything else translated from French to English for our benefit but which sadly are invariably peppered with all sorts of mistakes from basic spelling & grammar to the more subtle nuances that probably only native speakers would notice. It all just makes me squirm!!! Err…I’ll just get me coat…

    ( FWIW I quite liked your original Beyoncé title…I just read it with a silent “All About” at the beginning and it worked very well 😉 )

    • FWIW.. I had to think about that one… 🙂 You are the only person so far who has ventured an opinion on the title predicament – thank you!
      Badly translated signs are a lot of fun if you take them in your stride, particularly on the Côte d’Azur during the holiday season. I have a few pics of my favourites, which range from the hand-written “Do not sit on the window”, to the very official sign asking visitors not to throw their dustbins on the beach. I don’t understand why they don’t pay a copyeditor to read through it or translate it properly – it can cost them a bomb in insurance claims if a tourist dies because they haven’t understood the dangers of swimming in a lake where firefighting planes scoop up water…
      I can understand that a lot of bloggers don’t proofread, and some people may not have the basic grammar training to start off with, but just want to create and write. So I keep my trap shut if I see mistakes in someone else’s writing and if I really can’t stomach the writing, I just don’t go there any more. I go bananas when I see self-opiniated syntax sticklers picking holes in a blogger’s writing skills when they don’t know them from Adam 🙂

  8. Yep yep, I’m with you! I complain about this kind of thing all the time, ALL the time I say. I’m not suggesting I always get it right myself, but the apostrophe errors and suchlike drive me nuts. The other one that makes me cringe is when people use the word ‘of’ instead of ‘have’ in their writing (I mostly refer to facebook comments here) like “I should of got up earlier”, I say you should of paid more attention at school! The only thing I disagree with in your post is the reference to “We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control” – I like to think the double negatives were deliberately ironic.

    • We all appear to have our favourite peeves for grammar, spelling and punctuation – it’s fun to see what everybody comes up with! Facebook is a nightmare for Grammar Paranoia sufferers. The worst being those awful meme things with mistakes all over them. Argh. I can feel an attack coming on…. 🙂
      I did wonder about the possibility of the double negative making a positive – it’s true that the story of the album gives the idea that school is a way of conditioning children for being part of the system. Google it – there are two schools of thought on the double negative, but I couldn’t find a reliable source saying which is the right one.

  9. Oh, please, don’t let me commence! For all writers, Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style” should be the handbook. It’s small. It’s concise. It’s accurate. I have been afflicted by the necessity to correct grammatical and spelling mistakes for half a century at least. The use of “me” instead of “I” has become a modern-day crime. When I hear,” Me and him went to the the store,” I cringe in the corner, muttering, “It’s he and I, you cretin!” You wouldn’t normally say, a la Tarzan, “Me went to the store.” Think! I do remember, however, that Winston Churchill gave permission for the friendlier “It is me,Winston Churchill,” on a broadcast during War World II rather than the correct, “It is I.” There is colloquial and there is correct.
    The” there,their”, and” they’re” usage is one that frequently gets garbled. When I was teaching seniors at an all-male high school, I finally got fed up with correcting those errors in their essays.
    “The next time I find the wrong use or spelling of those words in your work,” I declared, “it will be an automatic ‘F’ for the whole essay.” The next set of essays came in correctly, all save one. He made the fatal error in the last sentence, received the “F,” and never made that mistake again.It’s called “awareness” or, as in today’s vernacular “mindfulness.”
    Onward and upward with the arts!

    • Thanks for participating – I was hoping someone would come up with the “colloquial” side of the argument! So for you, the title is incorrect? As the song goes, “I wanna know” 😀 Is colloquial acceptable if Churchill did it and Codo sang it? Or should we apply grammar seriously whatever the field?
      I have gone over to the dark side too – I gave in to temptation and set up as a copy editor after years of teaching English. I now happily hunt down errors and get paid for it – ideal!

      • I’m still a stickler for “It is I,” despite Churchill. I think song titles(although ungrammatical and drive me up the proverbial wall) count as colloquial, especially the country and western titles. I think we can presume the words are those of a person who lives in a certain geographical area where it is accepted as communication. Ideally, everyone would speak our language properly, especially if they learned it at school. I think we’re going to have to swallow the bitter pill of incorrect usage in areas we cannot control. The lovely part of editing is that we can control something!

  10. Hyphens are my bugbear. Yesterday, I was editing some copy that said: “State of the art technology.” Which left me wondering what kind of state the art technology was in….

  11. I was also at school during the ‘Hey, let’s not bother teaching the little tikes about grammar, they can just work it out on their own’ period of state education. This often means that I know when things are incorrect but I then have to spend hours on the internet searching for the correct answer. Living abroad makes it even worse as foreigners always have a fantastic grasp of grammar and want to have discussions about imperfect tenses or past participles, and seem shocked when I have to admit that I have no idea what they’re talking about!

  12. I agree about all those double negatives in songs. Aaarrgghh..
    On a slightly separate note, but still song related – what on earth do some of the things that they sing about mean?? At the moment there is a song called Happy (I think) and one of the lines is ‘Happiness is a room without a roof’ What??

  13. I really loved this, MM. 🙂 Another punctuation policeman here, who freely admits to editing her published posts if she spots an error which got through proof-reading and goes bananas when her DH persists in saying and writing things like “You should have seen Perpetua and I on the beach”! He knows it’s wrong, but was so conditioned to say ‘you and I’ as a child that he doesn’t admit it should be ‘you and me’ when it’s the object of a verb. Sigh…. He obviously didn’t have a primary school headmistress whose idea of a real treat was allowing her pupils to use coloured chalk when parsing sentences on the blackboard.

    I probably should have been a copy editor too, as it makes me so cross to see grammatical and other errors in printed material. Pedants of the world unite, say I. 🙂

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it. Parsing in colour? Wow! I must ask Helen if she got the chance to do that too.
      Copyediting is a fabulous job- you get to learn all kinds of interesting things. However, it does mean that you never really switch off. It drives my family up the wall.

    • I’m not a member of the Anti-Oxford Comma Squad, as you may have noticed in my writing. It can actually be very good for getting rid of ambiguity in some sentences, like “She took a picture of her parents, the President, and the Vice-President” – without the second comma, only two people are in the photo, but with it there are four.

    • Kind of. Muphry’s Law applies to editing, proofreading, publishing etc, and dictates that anyone who criticises another person’s editing work will invariably make a mistake whilst formulating their one-upmanship. So you will have guessed that it’s a deliberate misspelling of “Murphy”.

  14. It’s taken me three goes to read this blog. I was a bit rushed the first two times. I read the first line, Joanna, and thought “Oh yeah, like you needed to tell me that. This is going to be good. I’ll read it when I’ve got time to enjoy it!” So . . . what an uptight bunch we are. There, their and they’re, to comma or not to comma, to hyphen or not to hyphen, you and I, you and me. I’m fed UP of it all, fed UP of it. I’m not really. I feel a little sanctimonious pleasure when I read grammar mistakes in books. As for blogs, I just enjoy English as she is wrote.
    BTW, I see you’ve called someone else cupcake. I’m crushed.

    • The best mistake I ever saw was in a Penguin guide to writing, on sale by Amazon. The section about Grammar was entitled “Grammer”. Brr.
      I’m sorry you’re crushed, sweetie pie. I have a whole range of terms of endearment – can I make it any better by calling you “chuckle butty”, “flower” or “chuckle-chops” ?

  15. Ohhhhhhhhhhhh I am SO with you here! ‘Can’t get no satisfaction’ gets me as well! DOUBLE NEGATIVE, Mick Jagger!! DOUBLE NEGATIVE!! You’re inadvertently saying you CAN get satisfaction! DON’T YOU SEE THAT???? Urgh.
    The best punctuation mishap I’ve ever seen was outside a ‘Spanish’ restaurant, and it was advertising ‘Fresh tapa’s’. YOU’D THINK THEY’D KNOW HOW TO SPELL IT.

    • I’m glad I’m not alone for that one – funny how the big names of the music business get away with murder, isn’t it?
      Hmm. So the greengrocer’s apostrophe is alive and kicking in the restaurant business, too! It always gets me itching to grab a pen and complete the sentence. Let’s see… What about “Fresh tapa’s better than mouldy tapa”, or “Fresh tapa’s only a myth: the inside story on hygiene in Spanish restaurants, out TODAY” ?

  16. I consider myself a linquist of sorts and have always loved words, language and grammar. I am hoping this holds true whilst trying to learn a new language. As I get older I am slipping in punctuation and spelling and the lazy hyphen : ) You MM are doing just great and as I am working backwards have not yet seen your Beyonce post, but I truly think we should give each other a bit of leeway here and be less formal ! I draw the line at being called a guy as in “you guys” and the usage of the slang word Uh or um was drilled out of my children …hopeful smile.

    Just to stir the pot : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tapas
    Evil grin : )

    • I pull the plug on any You Tube videos that start with “hey guys” – it drives me potty! I would like to add to “uh” and “um” the verbal puntuations “like” and “you know” – what can’t they just say nothing at all? I just want to yell, “NO, I DON’T KNOW!”

      • Yes my poor children were also forbidden to ever use LIKE and “you know”. I was the Nazi mom but you know what? They are in their 20’s and 30’s and speak intelligently end eloquently as planned… hehe!

  17. I’m so glad I found this (and you!) – both it and you ring so many bells for me. When I read “I am a fully paid-up member of the Punctuation Police. I come out in spots and start muttering obscenities under my breath when I spot a greengrocer’s apostrophe. I tell shop owners in hushed tones that there is a spelling mistake ‘just here’, whilst my children burn up with embarrassment …” I almost wriggled with gratification and fellow-feeling.
    At the risk of being frowned upon for blatant puffing, you might like to read something I posted a couple of years ago. It’s here: http://tinyurl.com/5tmwrty
    Don’t stop. I love it!

    • Hello, Martyn! Welcome to MM’s pad. So you also embarrass people at the supermarket? I’m always happy to meet other bloggers who live on the dark side of the dictionary. Your post is great – we must cross our swords over the Oxford comma one day (I actually find it useful on occasions, as I said to Duncan a little higher up in the comments).
      Did you see this little beauty?
      http://vitalvegas.com/outraged-grammarians-picket-cosmopolitan-claim-rose-rabbit-lie-last-straw/
      It had me raring at the bit to open a bar called “Buy.Yourself.A.Grammar.Book.”
      If you like “Grammar Gestapo” posts, check in my archives for “Super Saver Tomato and the Punctuation Police”. There are a few Oxford commas in there to get your back up (or should I say, get “you’re” back up. Ha!)

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