Archive for the ‘Negation’ Category

The literalist

May 21, 2015

Today’s Mother Goose and Grimm, with a literalist Ralph coping with Grimm’s could care less:

could care less has been a perennial topic on Language Log and this blog. But in all the discussion among linguists and psycholinguists no one disputes that there’s an idiom here, and it has a negative element of meaning that is not overt. Ralph the literalist essentially denies this, implicitly taking the position that if Grimmy meant he couldn’t care less he should have said that.


Fig time

May 20, 2015

A couple days ago I caught a snippet of a discussion on KQED-FM about overwintering fig plants. Why people were discussing the topic as we near the beginning of summer I don’t know, but there it was. I’m not caring for any fig plants here in Palo Alto, but back when I lived in Columbus OH most of the year I had two: a Ficus benjamina, a very common house plant in temperate climates; and a Ficus carica, the plant the people on the radio were talking about (an ornamental and the source of the figs we eat), which I grew in Columbus as a potted plant, to serve as a reminder of California.

Now some figgy reflections, starting with some Ficus plants and then wandering on to other fig-related matters: the fig leaf of modesty, figgy pudding, Fig Newtons, and the negative polarity item care/give a fig.


Jury of English majors

May 18, 2015

Via Gregory Ward, a Mark Parisi cartoon from 5/19/09 showing a man in a witness box protesting “I didn’t do nuthin’!”, with the jury all thinking “Ooo! A confession!” — a jury of English majors, as the caption says.

In the popular imagination, English majors are so committed to the idea of grammatical correctness that they are unable to understand non-standard varieties.


Notes on malnegation

March 12, 2015

My posting of the 7th on miss not +Ving (as in I miss not getting the morning paper) has been getting a lot of views; at the moment, it’s #2 in number of views, behind only the long-standing top posting, on parts of the body. (Quite often, all the top ten postings in this regard have to do with sex or sexuality — but the “miss not” posting doesn’t.) At the same time, in looking at my files, I see an enormous number of postings on malnegation (or misnegation) — either overnegation (as apparently in this case) or undernegation (as apparently in could care less) — in Language Log and this blog (and also in some other linguablogs, for example Neal Whitman’s Literal-Minded blog), but no summary inventory of this material. It turns out that preparing such an inventory would be quite a substantial task, for a number of reasons, including one that became clear to me when I looked at Facebook comments on my “miss not” posting.


miss not

March 7, 2015

A Pickles cartoon posted by Andy Rogers on Facebook:

Andy’s comment: “Negation is SO CONFUSING!” Actually, most people seem not to be confused by such negation examples, and in fact tend not to notice that there’s anything notable about things like “I miss not having the morning newspaper”, which they read as just emphatic negation.


Caring less

August 6, 2012

Via Eleanor Houck on Facebook, this poster from Grammarly:

Grammarly is peeving obtusely here, affecting to misunderstand an idiom — could care less — that’s been around for at least 60 years and is now a commonplace. No modern speaker should fail to understand the intended meaning of the idiom.


Negatives and positives

June 20, 2012

From Tim McDaniel, this link to Brad Guigar’s Evil Comic (of the 18th):


Indifference to negation

June 26, 2011

It went past me on the radio as I was going to sleep, so I didn’t get the details of either form or context, but the crux of the matter was the possibility of either can or can’t in

I’ll see if we can/can’t [do something or other]

Huge numbers of both on the net. Compare these two:

I’ll see if we can’t do something for you in the next version. (link)

But I’ll see if we can do something for you so you can try it out. (link)

At first glance, it looks like this is a case of simple negation indifference (as Chris Potts labeled it in 2004): adding or removing a negation without change of meaning.

There are (vaguely) parallel cases that Potts inventories (and that I’ll look at in a moment), but this one has its own assemblage of features, three different factors. And, I’ll argue, the variants are semantically close but nevertheless distinct.


Annals of overnegation

December 7, 2009

For the overnegation files…

Heard on NPR’s “Car Talk” on December 6, from a listener seeking help:

I can’t get these cats from not sleeping under the hood [of my car].

As the Language Loggers have said (I paraphrase) over the years, once you dip into the waters of negation, it’s easy to  attract some limpets.

This example could be seen as a blend of two formulations:

I can’t get these cats to not sleep under the hood.

I can’t keep/prevent these cats from sleeping under the hood.

(“get these cats to not sleep under the hood” being explicitly negative, “keep/prevent these cats from sleeping under the hood” only implicitly negative — but then there’s that external negation in can’t).

Neg-quant scope

October 25, 2009

From a rodeo queen competitor interviewed on KQED’s “California Report”, October 23:

(1) It’s sort of depressing when you haven’t won many times, again, again.

The intended reading of “you haven’t won many times” is not one in which negation has scope over the quantifier many

(1a) ‘it’s not the case that you have won many times’

(a reading that mirrors the ordering of the negator and the quantifier in (1) — but one with the quantifier scoping over negation:

(1b) ‘there are many times when you haven’t won’

In fact, (1) might be understood as implicating something stronger than (1b), namely that there aren’t any times when you have won, an understanding that’s encouraged by “again, again”: you keep on failing to win, time after time.

Here’s a case that follows Kilpatrick’s Rule (KR), which prescribes the scoping of a quantifier over negation. KR is so called from James J. Kilpatrick’s insistence that the headline

(2) Mass Transit Not an Option for All Drivers

must mean that mass transit is an option for no drivers (‘for all drivers, mass transit is not an option’), though this is clearly not what the headline writer intended.

Mark Liberman mused on KR on Language Log (here, here, and here), disputing Kilpatrick’s claim, as did Neal Whitman and Jan Freeman. All three writers maintained that wide-scope negation was by far the most natural reading for examples like (2), and Mark provided a pile of examples, from a variety of respected writers over the centuries, in which negation scopes over the quantifier all, and he hadn’t found any examples with the other scoping.

In fact, it’s not hard to find examples with wide-scope negation where the quantifier all precedes (rather than follows) a negative element, as this case from Nicholas Kristof (“More Troops Are A Bad Bet”, NYT op-ed piece of 9/22/09):

… there are some first-rate commanders on the ground who cooperate well with local Pashtun leaders. That creates genuine stability. But all commanders cannot be above average, and a heavier military footprint almost always leads to more casualties, irritation and recruitment for the Taliban.

The reading here is ‘it’s not the case that all commanders can be above average; not all commanders can be above average’, not ‘for all commanders, they cannot be above average; no commanders can be above average’.

But (1) has the quantifier many, not all, and the two quantifiers work somewhat differently. Indeed, the difference between the readings (1a) and (1b) is subtle — even more so for (2′) (cf. (2)):

(2′) Mass Transit Not an Option for Many Drivers

‘not many drivers have mass transit as an option’ or ‘for many drivers, mass transit is not an option’.


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