On the Double Negative, Circular Definitions, and Children

4 min read

Double negative

2 Book recs, 1 short story

Roe v. Wade

A Double Negative by Lydia Davis

At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.*

Lydia Davis’s one sentence short story shows that A Double Negative is distinct and different than the positive. The idea that two negatives make a positive may be so in mathematics, but not so with language. The idea of not wanting to not have a child was more real to me as a twenty-something than wanting a child. And, the idea of not having had a child possibly more difficult, as a woman might imagine herself in a future when she may no longer conceive and she will not want not to have had a child.

These are grammar and syntax issues and they reflect more in reality. The double negative conveys a state or mood and the present perfect tense of have versus the past perfect tense of have had clarifies points in time when she experiences these feelings about not having a child.

Ben Roth explores the philosophical influence of Wittgenstein and his studies of words and meaning, something Roth argues is most apparent in Davis’s writing. The recent Supreme Court ruling to overturn Roe v Wade made the story of wanting to have a child and of not wanting to not have a child more significant. So much is unsaid but is present in the story: the complexity of desire and intention, the broader issues of procreation (or life or when it begins) and privacy.


I’ve noticed that a book changes over time, though the text is the same. J.D. Salinger was a pill to read in adolescence and maybe that’s because his work was assigned. At 49, I read Nine Stories like I had found water in the desert. Then I read the rest of his works. The words had not changed of course, but I had. There’s something else.

In your work or hobby, do you ever have that feeling when you return to the same idea or an example, touch on something from before, long before and you’re not sure if it is a redoubling or deja vu? In lexicography this is called a circular definition, when one word’s definition points back at the other, using the same term(s).

Jim Allison was a scientist working on a cure for cancer and he did research on mice to consider the possibility of helping the human immune system and its T-Cells fight and eradicate the cancer. At the time, no one would listen to him, even when he began to have success in the lab. It took 15 years to start clinical trials. Admiral William McRaven writes his story in his recent book.* He had written a public letter about Allison which he had hoped would earn him the title, Texan of the Year. It did not, but Allison got a call from Willie Nelson who learned that Allison was an avid harmonica player and he was invited to join him on stage. Allison was ecstatic and they played together at his concert, Roll Me Up in Smoke me When I die. Willie had suffered the deaths of family from cancer and cigarette smoking, something he began doing at the age of six! And hundreds of thousands of people are alive because Allison did not give up.

Where’s this going? I read Willie Nelson’s book this year and had met McRaven when working on a charity event. Nelson’s book shares struggles throughout his life with cigarettes, alcohol, and substances. McRaven spoke about the kindness of one person, to make a difference. Allison is an ordinary man, who made an extraordinary difference.


The circular definition in language is like the circular reference, both are inevitable, “a fundamental philosophical axiom.” Logic is like language in this way, without self-reference, logic and mathematics and language would not be possible.

On my daughter’s computer, she has the ten lessons from McRaven’s Make My Bed speech posted. My third and last child, she left for Cadet Basic Training at West Point on Monday. She left a note on my desk and wrote in black ink, I’m going after my dreams today. Then, she put her bamboo plant on my night stand with a yellow sticky, Hi, I’m Po, Please care for me.

The plant remains on my nightstand where I see it every day. Po is the name of Kung Fu Panda, a favorite Disney character, and a name that showed up in other children’s books she read which she may not remember: Tailypo and Lon Po Po. The Asian name seems fitting for three stalks of bamboo. It is also a way for my daughter to circle back to me, letting me know that I must look after her plant, that I have a chore to nurture it, after 18 years of nurturing and raising her. Meanwhile, she will also learn to make her bed, military style.


Circular references and circular definitions describe these connections, human connections as well as grammatical and linguistic connections. More broadly, it is a truth that I’m only beginning to understand. I see the circular reference in math, in logic, in programming, but with language and people it also holds true.* No one person exists in isolation, but is connected to everyone and everything else. The idea of not not having children, the kindness of one person, the unique brand of music of Jim Allison in the lab and on stage with Willie Nelson, the plant named Po and the child, the child and the mother.


A Double Negative and the Empty Nest

At this point in my life, I realize it is not so much that I want to let (her) go as that I do not want not to have let go, or not to have had let go. (Homage to Lydia Davis)



Example of Circular Definition – descriptions which have term(s) that point back at each other, as noted in bold below. In extreme, the one word definition of child is baby and the one word definition of baby is child. Fetus is described with more scientific language. It would be a curious study to see how these definitions from 1993 change over time into the present.

child, noun. 1. A person between birth and puberty. 2. a. A human fetus. b. An infant; a baby. 3. One who is childish or immature. 4. A son or daughter; an offspring. 5. A member of a tribe; descendant.

fetus, noun. 1. The unborn young of a viviparous vertebrate having a basic structural resemblance to the adult animal. 2. In human beings, the unborn young from the end of the eighth week after conception to the moment of birth, as distinguished from the earlier embryo.

baby, noun. 1.a. A very young child; an infant. b. The youngest member of a family or group. c. A very young animal. 2. An adult or a young person who behaves in an infantile way

Definitions are incomplete, but include the first relevant entries. Source is the American Heritage College Dictionary, 3rd Ed. Houghton Mifflin Co, 1993.

*William H. McRaven. Hero Code, Lessons Learned from Lives Well Lived. Hachette Book Group, 2021. Page 76.

*A Double Negative. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. New York: Penguin Books, 2009. p. 373.

“On Wittgenstein, Lydia Davis, and other Uncanny Grammarians” by Ben Roth. Philosophy and Literature. April 2022, Vol 46, No 1.

*Thich Nhat Hanh describes this as interbeing, the interconnection of all things.

Jul 2, 2022


About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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