Not Happy With What We Don’t Have


Students sometimes stumble when using what’s called the short answer—yes or no plus the auxiliary verb. This is especially true when they want to answer in the negative. Instead of No, I don’t they often say, No, I do or Yes, I don’t. I remind them that if it’s no, they should use the don’t too, whereas an affirmative has no negatives. Either two, or none, I emphasize.

They pounce. Aha! The double negative does exist in English, they gleefully proclaim, possibly in retaliation for all the times they’ve been corrected for saying “I don’t want nothing.” They slip into the double negative because it’s used in Spanish. It makes sense to them. “But it doesn’t make sense in English,” I tell my students. Then comes their chance to dispute it, as happened already this year for my beginner adult class.

The following day I stopped at the gas station just at the shift change. The attendant who’d filled my tank, unable to ring up the sale until his departing workmate finished counting the register, engaged me in friendly talk while we waited. How are you? came first, then talk about what could be better. The weather of course, which had been nothing but rain for weeks, or getting off work, like his workmate, instead of starting a shift, as he was. But really, he said, there was a lot to not complain about. I agreed, adding, And we’re still here! It’s almost Christmas!

Yes, the man said, that’s so. He smiled. If we’re not happy, he went on, with what we do have, we won’t be happy with what we don’t have.

Ah, I said, slowing down to process that. Click, click, went my brain. The negatives sank into place, the affirmatives took hold, and meaning materialized. “Yes, that’s so true,” I said, smiling again.

The other man, the one counting the register, said he didn’t know about any of that. Then he finished his task. “Happy with what we have, happy with what we don’t have,” he said, grabbing his jacket, “Who knows?” He started for the door. “But, guess what? I’m off!” He too was all smiles, which made it unanimous. An affirmative, no negatives.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Clellan Coe, a writer in Spain, is a contributing editor of the Scholar.


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