Notes on malnegation

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.

My posting on miss not +Ving noted Mark Liberman’s arguments that such examples in current English are not  just inadvertent errors, but are instances of an idiom pattern, or small syntactic construction. The Facebook comments, in contrast, focused on the history of the pattern, in which some sort of inadvertent error almost surely played a role; one possibility is a fusion of miss Ving with regret not Ving.

The point here is that an account of the historical source is not the same thing as an account of the current system of the language. This is just a warning against the Etymological Fallacy for simple words, carried over to the case of larger patterns. Things are as they are now, not (necessarily) as they used to be. There’s now an idiom pattern miss not Ving, which is not “overnegated” (just as there’s an idiom pattern could care less, which is not “undernegated”).

To complicate things further, as in many other instances of linguistic change over time, the older variant just doesn’t disappear, poof, but coexists with the newer variant. So you can get things like:

After social life became much more formal, Harry realized that he missed not dressing for dinner.

I understand that with effort I could care less about vicious comments on my blog.

But these days, in both cases, the idiomatic (and superficially “misnegated”) interpretations are by far the dominant ones.

Linguablog postings on malnegation have all sorts of phenomena, from examples where people just get tangled up in levels of negation and commit inadvertent errors, to instances of innovative idioms, including cases in where errors and systematic innovations might coexist. So the idea of an inventory of malnegation phenomena is daunting indeed.

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