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Why is the double negation not an issue in the Italian language?

I ask because I heard that in English you cannot say "non guardo mai la televisione", but you have to say "I never watch at television", which translated word by word is "Io mai guardo la televisione", thus removing one negation.

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    This is not a good example of double negation, in my opinion; a better one would be non c'è nessuno. Mai is a limiting adverb, a similar construct would be non guardo più la televisione where più can hardly be felt as a negation. – egreg Nov 9 '13 at 23:53
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    One could equally ask "why is the double negation a positive in English?" :-) – Sklivvz Nov 9 '13 at 23:56
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    I agree with @egreg. My understanding is that mai translates to ever and non mai translates to never. You could ask somebody, "Mai guardi la televisione?" meaning "Do you ever watch television?" and they could respond with "No, non guardo mai la televisione," meaning "No, I never watch television." – redbmk Nov 10 '13 at 3:53
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    @Sklivvz I guess if you look at language mathematically/logically, double negation does produce a positive effect. – d11wtq Nov 10 '13 at 3:55
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    @d11wtq surely, but then one can simply see the negation operator as an idempotent one. It's still mathematical :-) – Sklivvz Nov 10 '13 at 10:10
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In Italian the double negation is generally used with a negative meaning, like in the following examples

Non conosco nessuno
Non guardo mai la televisione
Non posso farci niente

The way you can think about this is to consider the first negation as not having effect on anything else apart from the verb.

With this "rule", the non only serve the purpose of turning the verb into its negative form, but it doesn't affect the rest of the sentence.

This is also coherent with some other examples in which two negations on verbs make the sentence a positive one

Non credo di non essere capace
Non dico che non sia appropriato

In both sentences the negation is attached to the verb, and two negated verbs turn the sentence into a positive one. It's worth noting, though, that

Non credo di non essere capace

and

Credo di essere capace

although both expressing a positive sense, are not interchangeable, the former expressing a higher degree of doubt about the subject's abilities.

Finally, as an addition, Italian is not the only language making an extensive use of double negations. Spanish is another notable example:

No conozco nadie
No puedo hacer nada

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  • It sounds like as long as you're expressing a thought, where you need to use a word like "di" or "che," then it works the same as English. I don't believe I'm not capable expresses more doubt than I believe I'm capable (and I am capable, or Sono capace expressing confidence). The difference comes in phrases like Non conosco nessuno, which translates to I don't know anybody. In English, I don't know nobody would imply that you do know somebody. – redbmk Nov 10 '13 at 3:59
  • @redbmk I think the key is the negation being on a verb or not. In I don't believe I'm not capable you are negating two verbs independently and that's why the double negation applies in Italian too. Also I'm not an English native speaker, but if someone says I don't know nobody I would think the person doesn't know anybody, just expressed in an incorrect way. – Gabriele Petronella Nov 10 '13 at 17:29
  • The first "positive" should be "negative". – egreg May 15 '14 at 17:48
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As a native speaker, I wouldn't really say that the examples cited in the other answers

Non conosco nessuno
Non guardo mai la televisione
Non posso farci niente

have a positive meaning, which would turn into:

Conosco alcuni (dei presenti)
Guardo alcune volte la televisione
Posso farci qualcosa

Actually, the latin principle where a double negation makes a positive meaning is not true in Italian. Actually the very examples shown in previous answers as having positive meanings, have indeed a negative meaning:

Non conosco nessuno -> I know nobody
Non guardo mai la televisione -> I never watch the television
Non posso farci niente -> Can't do anything about it

For example the sentence:

Non vediamo nulla/niente.

would mean

We see nothing.

You could explain it as considering nulla, niente or nessuno as outside of the negation power of the non negation. You can find more here (in Italian): http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negazione_(linguistica)

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I think egreg is right: mai is not a negative, but rather the Italian equivalent of the English work ever. The proof of it is that it is used in questions such as

Guardi mai la televisione?

The negative word is giammai. Yet, giammai is considered by many an old-fashioned word, and, in typical/colloquial use, mai is used stand-alone with negative meaning. It is an example of a word that is used so frequently in a negative context that it ends up being used as a negative itself (another example being affatto).

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Some English dialects allow to use the double negation (a.k.a. double negative) as intensifier; I can get no sadisfaction and we don't need no education are two phrases used in songs, but this use of double negation is common in some dialects in everyday speaking. See also Is there a rule about double negations that aren't meant as double negations (e.g. "We don't need no education")?

In Italian, the double negation is by default an intensifier; non so niente doesn't mean io so tutto as Logic would interpret the phrase.

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    I'm not sure whether this is an official rule, but in Italian the double negation is often required and not just an intensifier. As a native speaker, So niente is not something I would ever say or write. – Gabriele Petronella Nov 10 '13 at 2:21
  • I can't get no satisfaction and We don't need no education are examples of things you might hear in conversation, depending on the dialect, but in writing they would have a different meaning (unless you're writing in dialect). Those would translate loosely to I can get some satisfaction and We do need some education. Using a double negative can have different connotations though, like I don't dislike spaghetti would usually mean that you are OK with spaghetti, but doesn't necessary mean that you like spaghetti. – redbmk Nov 10 '13 at 3:48
  • Those lyrics are intentionally grammatically incorrect, for artistic effect. Speaking of not needing education, using a grammatically incorrect sentence is deliberately ironic. The double negative is generally used in street speak in order to be cool, but not because it is somehow "correct" in any English dialect. It has just become fashionable to break the rules. – d11wtq Nov 10 '13 at 3:51
  • Nope, double negative is perfectly standard in some English dialects; it's not standard in standard English. – kiamlaluno Nov 10 '13 at 7:40
  • kiamla, do you know some examples of triple negative in English? I.e., "non posso non essere certo di non dire la verità". – Kyriakos Kyritsis Nov 10 '13 at 12:40

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