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This is an extract from a book I am currently reading, the author escapes me at this minute, but i will update.

OFTEN IN ACTUAL LIFE, and not infrequently in the myths and the popular 
tales, we encounter the dull case of the call unanswered; 
for it is always possible to turn the ear to other interests.

My question is in relation to the authors use of double negatives. For example he says, not infrequently. Is it better practice here to write frequently e.g. OFTEN IN ACTUAL LIFE, and frequently in the myths and the popular tales,...

Or is this a question of style? What are people thoughts on this?


as per @Thomas Myron comment

BELOW IS FOR MY REFERENCE, ABOVE HERE IS MY QUESTION


There is probably more to this senctence than i am getting. If I break this whole sentence down further to try and understand it better

part1: this part could be written on its own

OFTEN IN ACTUAL LIFE, we encounter the dull case of the call unanswered; 
for it is always possible to turn the ear to other interests.

part 2: and this and not infrequently in the myths and the popular tales


So correct me if I am wrong but this is what he is saying in my own words:

Often in actual life and frequently in the myths and the popular tales,
we encounter the dull case of the call unanswered; 
for it is always possible to turn the ear to other interests.

So there is my words of what he says:

Often in actual life and frequently in the myths and the popular tales,
we encounter the dull case of the call unanswered; 
for it is always possible to turn the ear to other interests.

And then there is his way:

OFTEN IN ACTUAL LIFE, and not infrequently in the myths and the popular 
tales, we encounter the dull case of the call unanswered; 
for it is always possible to turn the ear to other interests.

Would anyone care to comment on the difference and which one is better(or easier to understand). Is it just a different style? Or is it just me and my english is not the best i.e. I have to write it down more simpler? Would appreciae peoples thoughts. I mean is the author consciously doing this or

  • 1
    Welcome to Writers, HattrickNZ. Writers is a Q&A site, not a forum. Any questions need to have a definable answer, and not be open-ended or invite discussion. If you can reword your post so that it asks a question and does not invite discussion, that would be great. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Nov 24 '16 at 0:32
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    That being said, the author you are reading is simply trying to make his prose sound more eloquent (unless he actually writes that way). It would be grammatically correct to say frequently as you have suggested; however, the author's way works perfectly well. It is a matter of taste and personal style. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Nov 24 '16 at 0:34
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English is not a programming language and negatives are not minus signs. They do not automatically cancel each other out. Double negatives are idioms and, depending on context, the second negative may cancel, weaken, or strengthen the first.

not infrequently is a case where the second negative weakens the first but does not cancel it out. not infrequently does not mean frequently, it means something between frequently and infrequently, so occasionally might be a good interpretation.

Compare this to a sentence like I am not unfamiliar with copyright law. Here the speaker is saying that they know something about copyright law, but they don't want to claim to be an expert. If you said, I am familiar with copyright law, that would imply that you are an expert. If you said I am unfamiliar with copyright law, that would imply that you knew nothing about it. I am not unfamiliar with copyright law means that I know a fair bit about it, but I don't claim to know all the ins and outs and details. It say, "I can give you general information, but don't mistake my word for professional advice.

But it can also be used ironically. If Mark Zuckerberg tells you that he is not unfamiliar with social media, he would of course mean that he is perhaps the world's greatest expert on the subject. Here the second negative not merely cancels the first but overshoots, emphasising the positive rather than the negative.

I don't have nothing is a common idiom (and in no way grammatically incorrect). It, and similar formulations, are a case of the second negative reinforcing the first. I don't have nothing may be semantically identical to I have nothing, but it has an additional emotional overtone, giving further emphasis to the speaker's destitution, and expressing their despair over it.

But this can also be to express disinterest or indifference to a subject. "What's your take on the decline of the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives?" "I don't got nothing."

not infrequently in the myths and the popular tales is a case of the second negative softening the first. Therefore it very specifically does not mean that the call unanswered occurs frequently in the myths. It is, however, denying that that is is rare. In short, it is equivalent to occasionally. It is saying that a sufficient number of cases of it can be found to support the writer's point.

Another use of the the double negative can be to separate two meanings that might otherwise be read as one. For instance, I am not unappreciative of the party you threw for me means that the speaker appreciates that you thought of them and wanted to throw them a party, but that they did not enjoy the party itself and would rather you did not throw them one in the future. Compare this to I appreciated the party, which would imply I liked the party itself, and I did not appreciate the party which would imply that you are not grateful for the thought and the effort that went into it.

Double negatives, are, in short, and instrument of nuance.

They are never ungrammatical because they are a matter of semantics, not grammar. But their semantics is not that of simple or uniform negation.

  • wow tks, nicely put, the copyright law example is a good explaination. But if I apply it to this phrase here and in no way grammatically incorrect - translation - it's not grammattically incorrect, but whether it is entirely correct you can't really say from this phrase.well I can't anyhow. – HattrickNZ Nov 24 '16 at 19:30
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    Actually, "no way grammatically correct" is yet another case: contradicting an initial negative statement. This helps make clear that you are disagreeing with what was said earlier. But there is another usage here as well. Calling a double negative "grammatically incorrect" is false because it is not an issue of grammar. Saying that it was "grammatically correct" would assert that it is a grammatical issue. Saying it is "not grammatically incorrect" leaves open the question of whether it is a grammatical issue at all (which it is not). – user16226 Nov 24 '16 at 23:36
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not infrequently

is not a double negative, (ok, it might be) but it does convey an exact meaning, even in slightly convoluted way.

I don't have nothing

is a textbook double negative, where one part of the statement cancels the other one, basically leading to the exact opposite meaning: "I have something".

The use of former is the matter of style, the latter is grammatically wrong. Or semantically. Or just bad English.

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    Not infrequently actually is a double-negative; it just isn't very obvious. If we're to go with the strict grammar rules here, the prefix in- is treated as a negative. You can see this because, like your second example, the not and the in- cancel each other out, leaving you with frequently. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Nov 24 '16 at 1:24
  • I am not sure what a double negative is technically, but not infrequently is the same as frequently so it has the same affect as a double negative at least as @Thomas points out. – HattrickNZ Nov 24 '16 at 1:47
  • ` the latter is grammatically wrong` can you advise what is grammatically wrong with it? tks – HattrickNZ Nov 24 '16 at 1:48
  • @HattrickNZ The latter, referring to I don't have nothing uses a double negative, and is therefore grammatically wrong. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Nov 24 '16 at 2:17
  • @HattrickNZ I stand corrected: "not infrequently" is a double negative, but it is grammatically correct, and it conveys a clear meaning. The expression is not that uncommon, by the way, not unlike "I do not disagree" and other constructions of the similar kind. The other one—"I don't have nothing" is wrong, because it is used with the meaning "I have nothing", but literally states the opposite. Sorry if my explanation is confusing, but it ain't get no better than that. – Lew Nov 24 '16 at 2:41
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@Thomas I agree.It indeed is matter of personal taste and style either to sound eloquent or to lay emphasis on what is being said. 'I don't have nothing', had me confused but re-reading it over and over it can mean that the author is trying to lay stress on the fact as- 'I don't have anything and 'I 've got nothing'. Combining these sentences we get: 'I DON'T HAVE NOTHING'.'

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Not infrequently is a double negative, and is therefore technically grammatically incorrect. Not is obviously the first negative. The prefix in- is considered to be negative, as it means not. The same holds true for similar prefixes, such as im- and un-.

That being said, a negative prefix is far less obvious than a whole negative word. Authors will sometimes use the style you have found. It is likely that the author you are reading is just trying to sound more eloquent by adding more words with more syllables. It's a matter of taste and personal style.

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