It is impossible not to ignore

Some sentence that began “It is impossible not to ignore” went past me on the radio while I was half asleep yesterday. By the time I started thinking about the sentence, I’d lost the context, but it seemed very likely that the sentence was an instance of overnegation, probably intended to convey ‘it is impossible to ignore’, but with an extra negative element, the explicit negator not (in addition to impossible and ignore, where the negation is “incorporated” into a word). Language Log has been looking at overnegations (and undernegations) for some time — an inventory of postings on overnegation, up through 5/18/07, can be found here — but “impossible not to ignore” seems not to have been recorded there (though other overnegation types with impossible or ignore in them have been). So this posting is a modest addition to the overnegation literature.

I’ve come across one example of “impossible not to ignore” where that expression (convoluted though it is) is almost surely to be interpreted compositionally. This is in a review (by Matthew Jesse Jackson, Assistant Professor of Visual Arts and Art History at the University of Chicago) of an art installation, “Triangle of Need” by Catherine Sullivan:

Passing bodies interrupt your view. Abandoned headphones clang on the benches around you.

You try to acclimate yourself to the four video monitors and Dr. Patrick Obi’s e-mail, but it is impossible not to ignore some part of the work. You grow frustrated.

That is, the installation is so packed with event that there’s no way to keep from failing to attend to some of it; unavoidably, you’ll miss out on some of it.

But there are examples that are pretty clearly overnegated:

The most consistently striking thing about Press Play, however, is just how many cracking beats the rapper has managed to assemble, most of which lend it a vibrancy and energy that’s impossible not to ignore. (link)

In a country that hasn’t even seen the official launch of the iPhone, more than two-thirds of the Chinese population is aware of the iPhone. There are so many iPhone clones coming out of Chinese factories, it’s almost impossible not to ignore the counterfeit side of things. Perhaps the prevalence of China-made iPhone copies has helped make the iPhone an icon. (link)

Linda Blair’s possessed little turn in this shocking and supremely scary film got her enough death threats that Warner Bros. had to hire bodyguards for her during the six months after the film’s release. Love it or hate it, it is impossible not to ignore this William Friedkin-directed horror classic. People kept going back to get scared again and again. (link) 

But, take into account all the unusual meteorological phenomenon, whether it is unusually huge snowstorms in the west, severe hurricanes and tornados, mild summer and winters, extreme levels of rain or the opposite, extreme droughts, or any other uncommon weather around the globe, it is impossible not to ignore them and say they are insignificant. (link)

But I can’t imagine the administration is excited about the start of this season. I’ve typed [Loyola basketball player] Jimmy Patsos’ name exactly twice in my life, and both times are because he did something so bizarre that it was impossible not to ignore. (link)

And with  the subject of ignore expressed:

An Open Letter from UK Deaf Community Leaders

Events that have unfolded over the past few days at Gallaudet have been extremely painful to watch, and is already having an impact on a community in another country.

The President of Gallaudet University is not just a leader of a campus, nor a leader within the academic community within the United States, but in fact an international leader within a global Deaf village. To this end, it is impossible for British people not to ignore what is happening as events unfold, and moveover in relation to the lack of listening that appears to be happening. (link)

It is impossible (not) to ignore these examples of overnegation.

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