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Headline spotted on today’s BBC website:

Michael Fallon: ‘Morally indefensible’ not to bomb IS in Syria

What do you take from this headline? Is Fallon, the UK government’s Secretary of State for Defence, saying we should bomb IS in Syria, or not?

Double negatives intrigue me. ‘Indefensible’ means not justified by argument, cannot be defended. If the headline read ‘Morally indefensible to bomb IS in Syria’ we would readily understand that Fallon is suggesting that it would be wrong to bomb IS in Syria. The presence of the ‘not’ however turns the whole meaning around. Fallon is suggesting that it would not be wrong to bomb IS. It would be right.

Whether it is right or wrong to bomb IS in Syria is a topic for discussion another day. What interested me is why did the headline writer choose to employ a double negative in the headline? Why not simply write Michael Fallon: ‘Morally defensible to bomb IS in Syria’?

Take this famous sentence from the Star Trek introduction: to boldly go where no-one has gone before.

Now change it to: to boldly go where no-one has not gone before.

We could spend days arguing that since no-one means no person, when it comes down to it, both sentences mean the same thing (no person has gone, no person has not gone – same result) even though technically ‘no-one has not gone’ translates to ‘someone has gone’.

How about this, spoken by Al Jolson in the 1927 movie, The Jazz Singer: You ain’t heard nothin’ yet, folks.

You have not heard nothing yet technically means you have heard something by the time the two negatives, not and nothing, cancel each other out but we are absolutely certain that this is not what Al Jolson meant.

If you google ‘double negatives’, you’ll find plenty of websites that discuss the correctness, or otherwise, of such sentence constructions and present many examples but what about double positives? They don’t exist, do they?

Yeah, right.

I can't get no satisfaction - Rolling Stones, 1965

I can’t get no satisfaction – Rolling Stones, 1965