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.
Archive for the ‘Negation’ Category
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.
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.
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.
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).
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’.
A few days ago I wrote to a small group of coordination-and-negation enthusiasts with the following but instead example (from my own hand, in e-mail):
I got constant piles of outraged mail about [my] not having a clickable address, but instead one that had to be typed in by hand.
(that is, ‘… but instead having one that had to be typed in by hand’). I was sure that I had written similar things on other occasions, and in fact I saw no problem with it, despite its being formally non-parallel (the second conjunct is missing a verb, though the first conjunct has one).
My correspondents didn’t recall having seen discussions of such not …. but instead examples, but they turn out to be extraordinarily common (and unremarkable). Despite being formally non-parallel, they are entirely grammatical. Some examples might be a bit awkward, but that seems to be a matter of processing difficulties rather than grammaticality.
And in fact these examples are closely related to another case that has gotten a lot of attention in the usage literature: not only … but also. (more…)
David Fenton wrote yesterday with a puzzle:
This post, which is just a link to a video, has as its comment this phrase:
 Is there nothing the iPhone can’t do?
Reading this caused a mental stumble — seems like double negative problem, and more naturally expressed as:
 Is there anything the iPhone can’t do?
But then I thought about it, and it seems to me that the two phrases mean exactly the same thing. Normally nothing/anything would be something of a loose antonym pair, but in this case they are interchangeable.
I replied (again, slightly edited):
Seems to me that  is naturally read as a rhetorical question, conveying
There is nothing the IPhone can’t do. [3a]
There isn’t anything the iPhone can’t do. [3b]
while  can be read as an information question, asking about the abilities of the iPhone. But, in the right context, information questions can be deployed rhetorically, so  and [2 ] can end up having very similar effects.
I consulted negation maven Larry Horn, who agreed with my take on the question, and expanded on it:
I don’t see the two questions as being at all the same in terms of what kind of background they presuppose and what kind of answer (if any) they anticipate.
 is most naturally uttered as a surprising empirical conclusion to a repeated demonstration of the iPhone’s versatility and capability, and is indeed (as are many negative questions) normally intended rhetorically, roughly equivalent to a (hedged) assertion like “(So) it seems there’s nothing the iPhone can’t do”, i.e.”The iPhone can evidently do anything, right?”
, on the other hand, is naturally asked when one is uncertain about the limitations of the iPhone, and might be asked of a salesperson in the Apple Store as a legitimate query: “You’re asking me to pay all this money for a device–what are its limits? What can’t it do?” But  can also be used rhetorically in a way quite similar to , building in an inference that apparently there isn’t anything it can’t do.
So  is a bit more versatile than .
Note that Larry’s and my responses go well beyond simple-minded truth-functional semantics (not that you couldn’t try to devise a complex-minded truth-functional semantics, though that takes a considerable amount of work). In particular, both of us replied with references to concepts that are ordinarily understood as pragmatic rather than semantic: see the references to questions understood rhetorically and Larry’s more general reference to “what kind of background [the questions] presuppose and what kind of answer (if any) they anticipate”.
So  and  are subtly different pragmatically.
The text for today, from the excerpts (in the NYT yesterday) from Sarah Palin’s statement resigning as governor of Alaska:
I’ve never believed that I, nor anyone else, needs a title to do this — to make a difference, to help people.
My comment here is on the nor of nor anyone else. I would probably have used or myself, but Palin’s usage isn’t non-standard. But some commenters have had qualms about nor in cases like this.