Thursday, May 30, 2024

MLP: Don’t presume nada

| May 14, 2020 1:00 AM

Of the many, er, colorful adjectives befitting Mrs. Language Person, prompt isn’t one of them.

From time to time, conscientious readers — so rare, so precious! — ask MLP to address (or revisit) certain questions of grammar, semantics, and meaning. From time to time, your rather discourteous MLP belatedly remembers to respond (eius culpa).

Wake, woke, awakened, etc.: First, let’s distinguish between adjectives and verbs. In the sentence “I am awake,” awake is a descriptive adjective. Not at all confusing.

However, in the phrase “I awake (at 7 a.m.)” or “I awaken,” as old-fashioned as that sounds, awake and awaken are verbs, both correctly used.

The verbs are more difficult to keep straight. “Wake” and “awake” mean basically the same thing — to end sleep. Where it gets confusing is form of speech. A chart would be more helpful, but barring that, one must think about time: Present (wake), past and past perfect (woke), and participles (-ing). So we have:

Present: I wake up, I awake, or I awaken at 7 a.m.; s/he wakes, awakes, or awakens; you/they awake or awaken. Yes “I awaken” in present tense feels awkward. You’ll find it in classic literature, but it’s old-fashioned and out of favor now.

Past: I/you/she/they woke up, awoke, or awoken

Past perfect: I have woken up, she has awoken, they’ve woken her.

Present participle: I am waking up, he is awakening, they are waking.

The more you say it, the worse it all sounds, doesn’t it? Even MLP is feeling rather dazed.

Assume vs. presume: Revisiting these two, both words take something for granted. The easiest way to remember the difference is this: P comes after A, so it has more.

A presumption (noun) is based on more reliable evidence. Presuming (verb) involves more certainty than assuming. A presumption is an educated guess. An assumption, however, may have no supporting evidence at all. In a sense, an ass-umption is more likely to make a (you know what) out of he who assumes.

Hey, it’s just a memory trick.

Double negatives: Long abhorred by grammar teachers and Snitty Old Biddies alike, the double negative has its defenders. Any Pink Floyd fan knows the classic example:

We don’t need no education. (Oh but we do, we do!)

Redundant, to say the least. Either we need no education, or we don’t need education. But do we not need no education?

Nevertheless, double negatives are surprisingly common in literature, including some of the greats. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Bart Simpson (whose classic blackboard triple, “I won’t not use no double negatives” put paid to poor Edna Krabapple’s corrective efforts). In fact, languages more ancient than ours, such as Hebrew, Persian, and Russian, routinely incorporate double negatives into correct syntax. In French, double negatives are used for emphasis. In proper Spanish they reflect an absence — no hay nada.

Your MLP calls that bunk in English. A double negative is simply confusing, especially when substituting a positive can be done. She allies herself with the great orator (and possibly equally snobbish) George Orwell, who railed against using double negatives, which he said can “make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.”

So why do some linguists and anthropologists defend this practice? Perhaps because none of us can point to an original rule against it, other than the pure logic that, like in mathematics, two negatives cancel one another out. The consensus seems to be that it’s at least occasionally permissible if carefully done, French style, for emphasis.


I can’t get no satisfaction (wrong). Mick can’t get any satisfaction (better).

They can’t go nowhere (wrong). They can’t go anywhere (better).

I’m not unhappy that MLP got fired (acceptable). While “not un-” is a double negative, it does make a rather different point than “I’m happy.”

MLP still posits that the better choice is to come up with a different, clearer way to communicate. Why make the listener work that hard? “I’m glad to be rid of MLP” makes your feelings clear, Dear Reader, without no stinkin’ double negative.

Grammar question, confusion, correction, or complaint? Kindly share with your lazy MLP. It’s less work than coming up with a new topic.


Mrs. Language Person and Sholeh Patrick are columnists for the Hagadone News Network. Contact them at