What am I supposed to say? ‘Any’ or ‘no’? ‘Anybody’ or ‘nobody’? ‘Anything’ or ‘nothing’?
Don’t worry. By the end of this post, I promise you won’t have any doubts. No doubts whatsoever. You might even want to come back and read those last two sentences again.
For the record, the rules I am about to explain work for all the pronouns that begin with ‘any’ and ‘no’ as well as ‘any’ and ‘no’ themselves when used as determiners:
anyone/no one – I don’t know anyone who lives in Cuenca.
anybody/nobody – Nobody even knows where Cuenca is.
anything/nothing – I don’t know anything about Cuenca.
anywhere/nowhere – There’s nowhere to buy fish & chips in Cuenca.
any/no – Having said that, I have no complaints about my trip to Cuenca.
Okay, now we know which words we’re dealing with, let’s start with the basics. The key to understanding how to use them hinges on one simple fact. It’s the most important fact you’ll read today. I personally guarentee it.
So important is this fact that I’m even going to repeat it… and I hate repeating myself almost as much as…
A double negative is when you say something horrible like:
I’ve helpfully circled the negatives in the phrase so you can see exactly what I’m talking about. Aren’t I a good teacher? Two red circles. That’s a double negative. It’s wrong wrong wrong. The mere act of typing it made me vomit a bit in my mouth.
Let’s think about this logically; what is ‘nothing’? ‘Nothing’ is the absence of a thing. So, if you don’t have the absence of a thing, then you must have a thing, right?
Wow, I think I even confused myself with that one. It does make sense, however. Read it again. Keep reading it until it’s burnt onto your retinas. Such eye damage may be uncomfortable but the rest of the post depends absolutely on your having understood it.
You Spanish speakers, on the other hand, don’t seem to mind double negatives at all. Spanish is full of them. If we simply translate our previous (wrong) example into Spanish, we get:
Do you seem them? Two negatives. Together. But it sounds fine, right? You’d happily tell your friends ‘Es que no tengo nada’ when it’s your turn to pay for the next round of beers, or when you leave Caprabo with a pocket full of stolen Chupa Chups and the security guard asks you why you’re so pleased to see him.
Double negatives are often fine in Spanish but we really don’t like them in English.
All of this brings us nicely to our second key point about understanding how to use words with ‘any’ and ‘no’. Again, this is absolutely key to understanding how to avoid double negatives and, in my experience as a teacher, something a lot of students are confused about:
Let that fact sink in for a moment. If you don’t internalise it, you’re going to keep making the same mistake again and again and again.
Furthermore, the fact that they’re not negative is exactly the reason why we use them within negative phrases; we want to avoid making a double negative. If ‘anything’ were negative, it wouldn’t help us at all, would it? I’ll say it one more time…
Let’s correct our previous (wrong) example: ‘I don’t have nothing.’ I suppose you’ve already worked it out, but if you haven’t, here’s what you should say:
Perfect! Doesn’t it sound great? It’s like music to my native speaker’s ears. Once again, let’s count up the negatives. It shouldn’t take long. Maths has never been my forté, but you don’t need an abacus to figure out the answer is….. one. The ‘not’ in don’t is the only negative in the phrase.
Now we’ve established that we can only include one negative per phrase and that words beginning with any aren’t negative, we can go into a bit more depth and look at some different options.
There are almost always two ways in which we can form negatives. We just translated “No tengo nada” as “I don’t have anything”. Great. It works perfectly. We do, however, have another option. We could use the word ‘nothing’. If we do so, we’ll have to lose the negative ‘don’t’, though. You wouldn’t want me to throw up in my mouth again, would you?
So the second possible translation of ‘no tengo nada’ is:
It’s time to get out the world’s smallest abacus again, guys. How many negatives do you see?
One lonely little negative. But that’s how they like it. Negatives like to be alone. They’re introverts. They prefer a marathon Minecraft session to a botellón any day of the week. They just want to be on their own. They’re like moody little EMOs.. just leave them alone.
Just to recap, then. What were our two possible translations of ‘no tengo nada’?
Bingo! They both sounds great. No worries. It’s basically just a stylistic choice and there’s no difference at all in meaning.
Now we’re going to use these same rules with some of the other ‘any/no words’ that I listed at the beginning of the post. All of them work the same way so we shouldn’t have too much difficulty. Can you guess what the two possible translations of ‘No hay nadie’ could be? I bet you can…
If you’re wondering why I used ‘anybody’ instead of ‘anyone’ and ‘nobody’ rather than ‘no one’, don’t think about it too hard. There’s no difference at all. They mean exactly the same thing. It’s just a stylistic choice. Don’t waste your time pondering it.
For another example, let’s go back to Caprabo and the stolen Chupa Chups. What else could we say to the security guard? In Spanish, you might say “No tengo Chupa Chups” or “No tengo ningún Chupa Chups”. But what would you say in English?
While grammatically correct, “I don’t have Chupa Chups” sounds a bit weird. It would sound much much better if we used a determiner. Native speakers tend to use ‘any’ or ‘no’ in this type of sentence. Let’s have a look at our two possible translations, then:
Easy, right? Each phrase has one lonely EMO negative. Happy days.
On more example then. How about if we want to say something like: “No hay ningún sitio para comprar fish & chips en Cuenca.” Double negative alert! I saw two negatives. It’s okay, though. It’s Spanish. It’s fine. Just make sure you don’t translate it word for word.
Just before we finish, I want to add a little note. Have you ever heard native English speakers using douoble negatives?
You may well have heard them sometimes in songs, or in western films or something like that. Mick Jagger, for example, couldn’t get no satisfaction. Even the great bard, Bob Dylan, said; “when you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose”.
So what am I talking about? If it’s good enough for Bob Dylan, it’s good enough for you, right?
These guys are native speakers making artistic choices about how to use their language. They’re thinking about tone, style and whether or not the lyrics scan. If you casually say to your friend in a bar that you “don’t know nobody here”, trust me when I say you don’t sound like Mick Jagger. You don’t sound like a cowboy either. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but you don’t even sound like Keith Richards pretending to be a cowboy.
Let’s agree on a simple rule: you guys can only use double negatives if and when you sell over a billion albums, enter the Rock Hall of Fame, or move to Texas and buy a ranch. Agreed?
Well, that’s the end of this week’s post. I hope it was helpful. If it was, please consider sharing with friends, classmates, aging British rockstars, or anyone else you think might find it useful. I’m talking about Facebook, Twitter (where you can also follow Patrick Schwa) Instagram and anywhere else you fancy. You can even ‘like’ and ‘follow’ Schwa English right here on this website. Cheers and see you next week.