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 Double negatives and the present perfect continuous: recent or ongoing activity?
snowy scene

Jana Volencova from The Czech Republic asks:

1. Is it correct to use two nots in a sentence like: ‘Don't dare not to do it?

2. Does the present perfect continuous tense have two meanings? What makes me think that is the comparison of two sentences like: ‘It has been snowing?and ‘I have been learning English for five years.'

Roger replies:

double negatives

Whilst not very common, double negatives are fine in standard English, provided they both carry a full meaning, as in your example. Further examples might be:

  • 'Never do nothing!' (I.e. Always do something!)

  • 'Never say 'no', if he asks you to help him.' (I.e. Sometimes say 'yes'.)

  • 'Don't think about not coming to the station to see me off. I shall be so disappointed if you're not there.'
In non-standard English, in certain dialects, two, or even three, negatives may be used to express a single negative meaning. It is important to recognise these dialectal forms, though it might sound strange if you used them actively yourself. Here are a few examples:
  • 'He didn't do nothing!' (= He didn't do anything OR He did nothing.)

  • 'Since I got home last night, I ain't spoke to nobody nowhere.' (= Since I arrived home last night, I haven't spoken to anybody anywhere.)

  • 'We ain't got no beer left. Shall I get some?' (= We haven't got any beer left. Shall I fetch some?)

Present perfect continuous

There are different aspects of past continuous usage. In the example you quote, 'It has been snowing', where there is no adverbial phrase, the results or effects of the activity are still evident. It may have stopped snowing for the time being, but the snow is almost certainly still on the ground for all to see. Look at the following examples of this usage. The final three examples are taken from the Goldilocks and the Three Bears children's story when the bears return home to find that their house has been disturbed:

  • 'Gosh! You're out of breath. Have you been running?'

  • 'You've been eating garlic, too. I can smell it on your breath.'

  • 'Somebody's been eating my porridge.' (There's very little left.)

  • 'Somebody's been sitting in my chair.' (The chair has been damaged.)

  • 'Someone's been sleeping in my bed. And she's still there!'
Use of the present perfect continuous in the Goldilocks story increases the suspense and makes us think that at any moment we shall discover where Goldilocks is.
When we use the present perfect continuous with a for/since adverbial phrase, we are talking about actions which started in the past and are still ongoing, as in your example, Jana. Further examples would be:
  • 'You've been reading that book since Christmas and you still haven't finished it yet!'

  • 'How long have you been waiting?' 'I've been standing here for half an hour. These buses never come.'

  • 'John's been looking for a job for over a year now, but he still hasn't found one.'

  • 'I've been working on this since six o' clock and now it's nearly midnight. I'm tired!
Note that when we use an adverbial phrase with for, we are talking about a period of time up to the present. When we use an adverbial phrase with since, we mention the starting time of the activity. Try not to confuse the two usages. If we wanted to re-write the final example above using a for-phrase, we would have to say:
  • 'I've been working on this for nearly six hours.'