HERE we go again — something that’s been hashed and rehashed to death for literally decades and we’re still having to deal with it. Everyone in the 21st century should know this by now.
What’s the drop on these two sentences?
“I didn’t do nothing.”
“I didn’t do anything.”
The main (and the only) difference between the two is that one is correct standard English and the other is substandard vernacular usage.
I didn’t do anything. (Correct standard English)
I didn’t do nothing. (Substandard vernacular usage)
THE TRUE MEANING
Both phrases express the same thing — the person did nothing — but the substandard vernacular usage bungles it with a double negative.
It is that double negative (didn’t + nothing) that gives rise to many, many hilarious instances of force-fed analysis.
By the laws of the planets and logic, “didn’t do nothing” must surely mean did something — it does, at least only if we’re going solely by the strict logical structure of the words in the sentence.
The logical meaning is dynamite on paper, but worthless. It isn’t the meaning in real-life usage, if we cared enough to want to know actual meanings.
Realise that people who use “I didn’t do nothing” (or similarly “I ain’t done nothing”) aren’t literally confessing to having done something. They meant they did nothing but only let down by the way they structured their sentence.
Language isn’t mathematics, no matter how much some of us desire it to be. There’s only so much we could apply strict logic to languages.
Obviously use the correct standard English version, whenever possible, if ever you can help it. Self-explanatory.
The right way to approach this
There’s no debate about this.
In the grammar of standard English, “didn’t do anything” is correct and “didn’t do nothing” is substandard (and found in some dialects and socio-regional usage).
In terms of real-life meaning, 99.99% of the time both mean exactly the same thing — did nothing.
Some insufferable types will explain to us that a double negative equals a positive, so “didn’t do nothing” is equal to “yes, did something.”
Unfortunately, those people are treating language like mathematics, in which you can indeed multiply two negative numbers and get a positive number.
But in real human use of a natural language, a person saying “I didn’t no nothing” means he didn’t do anything.
Naturally there are some contexts in which a person may deliberately use the double negative to mean an affirmative. For example, a defence against being accused of doing nothing:—
I didn’t just do nothing all day. I did [list of things done].
Stop being so negative-thinking. Avoid using double negatives.
Learn to think generally like this:—
I did something.
I did nothing.
You either did something or you did nothing — not didn’t this, didn’t that, didn’t anything, didn’t nothing. Your readers or listeners will appreciate you more, look upon you in a more trustworthy light, and get the impression that you’re pleasant, educated yet practical.
At the same time, we encourage you not to go around correcting other people’s use of double negatives (unless you are their parent or teacher).
The wrong ways to approach this
1. Treating language like maths
This is the No. 1 trap most people are fallen to in their general approach to a language (indeed, any language).
Two typical reactions from this bunch of people:—
Barmy response #1
If you didn’t do nothing, that simply means you have done something. If you didn’t do anything, then that’s pretty straightforward. Both sentences are grammatically correct per se but have very different meanings.
Barmy response #2
The word anything is used in a negative sentence whereas something is used in an affirmative one, so “didn’t do nothing” is grammatically incorrect and “didn’t do anything” is correct. The two negatives make the sentence an affirmative, with the meaning of having done something. This is the difference between your two sentences.
Both reactions are wrong because “didn’t do nothing” does mean the speaker meant he did nothing. To authentic English speakers, that construction has become an idiom for “didn’t do anything.”
2. Because I don’t understand, so nobody else understands either
This is the No. 2 trap that many people lock themselves into in understanding a language.
Barmy response #3
Didn’t do nothing is not advisable as it might be taken otherwise. It’s one of the examples of poor English statements that you might hear in some Hollywood movies. For example, “I ain’t going nowhere” is another popular statement to convey the meaning “I’m not going anywhere” but technically doesn’t mean that.
Technically speaking, “didn’t do nothing” will be understood by native English speakers to mean did nothing.
Technically speaking too, ain’t going nowhere has two meanings in real life. The literal one is not going anywhere. The figurative meaning is as an idiom for “not making progress.”
The nutters meet their match
They never did nothing at no time.
Never mind the grammar of the thing. What does that mean? What does it mean to you?
They didn’t do anything at no time?
Some time? Sometimes? Any time? Anytime?
Did they do or didn’t do whatever the hell it was at what bloody time?
Go by strict grammar or logic and you will end up bonkers trying to figure that one out.
In an ideal world, that sentence clearly needs recasting — but what does it mean anyway?
It’s an idiom, my friend:—
They never did anything.
They always did nothing.
You either learn this, or you starve. It’s as simple as that.
Featured image: To-do list via 4chan. Images: I Didn’t See That Coming via samatters.com | Absolutely Nothing via Uncyclopedia | I didn’t do muffin via redbubble | Brains and skulls via Creation Moments | Yes math via 4chan | How I see math word problems via 4chan | In case you didn’t know via c4c | Letter of resignation via Career Builder| Evil plan was to do nothing via imgflip
© Learn English or Starve, 2015. (B15265)