I was reading an article in CNN Philippines recently when I noticed a use of the double negative: “Neither side has given no quarter in an ongoing territorial dispute over a portion of the South China Sea.” The use of double negatives is not inherently incorrect. The correctness of a particular use depends on whether the sentence in question conveys the writer’s intended meaning.
To “give no quarter” means to show someone no mercy. The sentence in question specifically refers to a territorial dispute. Thus, to say that neither China nor the Philipines have given no quarter is to say neither country has not shown any mercy in the dispute; that is, both sides have shown mercy.
Was this the intended meaning though? The first half of the article clearly details the acrimonious relationship between the two countries. One might argue that the second half of the article indicates the existence of warm economic relations between the two countries. If so, perhaps this warm relationship itself is evidence of the mercy shown by both countries.
Such an argument, however, ignores the fact that the act of giving no quarter refers specifically to the territorial dispute. Although the two countries have a warm economic relationship, they have a frosty geopolitical relationship. The poor geopolitical relations are evidenced by the Philippines’s arbitration case against China, the name-calling, and the possibility of a future worsening of relations. If we accept that “giving no quarter” refers solely to the geopolitical relations between these two countries, it seems obvious that the use of this double negative is incorrect.
The difficulty of using this phrase correctly is perhaps compounded by the fact that “give no quarter” is inherently negative. Thus, to use any negative on top of this phrase automatically produces a double negative. Nevertheless, there is some evidence that the phrase “give any quarter” can be used as its opposite.
In 1811, Volume XIX of William Cobbett’s Political Register used the phrase “never give any quarter” to describe the savagery of soldiers who showed no mercy to their enemies. In a 1965 article, the Herald-Journal used the phrase “Neither side willing to give any quarter” in the title of an article on the Vietnam War. More recently, the English Rock Band Cutting Crew also used the phrase “give any quarter” in the 1986 album Broadcast.
Perhaps it would have been more accurate for CNN to describe the geopolitical relationship between the Philippines and China as one in which “Neither side has given any quarter.”