Archive for Semantics

A ban wouldn't make it hard to what?

One for the misnegation files — Leah Libresco, "Guns Like The AR-15 Were Never Fully Banned", FiveThirtyEight 6/14/2016:

The review for the DOJ concluded that bans on specific models or features of assault weapons had little to no discernible impact on gun deaths. If the law had any effect, the report said, it was most likely the result of bans on large-capacity magazines, which contain 10 or more rounds. (Large magazines allow shooters to keep firing without pausing to reload, a point at which their targets could run or fight back.) Calculations based on homicide reports in Jersey City, New Jersey, suggested that restricting large-capacity magazines might lower the number of gunshot victims by up to 5 percent. However, there are a huge number of high-capacity magazines already in circulation. The report authors concluded that a ban on them probably wouldn’t make it hard to keep a determined shooter from legally buying a pre-ban magazine and pairing it with an AR-15 equivalent.

[h/t Rick Rubenstein]

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The love organ of many names

British comedian Richard Herring is theauthor of a 2003 book entitled Talking Cock: A Celebration of Man and his Manhood, so he naturally seized upon the republicization opportunity provided by the recent story of the world's first successful penis transplant. He made it the topic of his weekly humor column in The Metro, the trashy free newspaper that I sometimes reluctantly peruse in my constant search for linguistic developments that might be of interest to Language Log readers.

In a bravura display of diversity of lexical choice, Herring contrived to use a different euphemism for the anatomical organ every time he could find an excuse for mentioning it, which, believe me, was a lot. And he left me pondering a serious lexicographical question: just how many euphemisms are there for the appendage in question?

[Unusually, this post is restricted to adult males. Please click "Read the rest of this entry" to confirm that you are male and over 18.]

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Annals of singular "themselves"

Geoff Hackelford, "Olympic Golf: (Some) 'Powers-That-Be-Whiffed'", 5/6/2016:

But as Marika Washchyshyn writes for Golf, the women's side has a very different view, with not a single player declaring themselves out in spite of the health scare […]

Ron Irving, who sent in the link, notes that themselves is used to refer to an individual (if generic) woman, and adds that "a few years back I would have stared at this sentence in disbelief".


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One can't deny that it isn't comforting

Jordan Hoffman, "Mother's Day review — almost transcendentally terrible", The Guardian 4/28/2016:

One can’t deny, however, that this sort of badness – this transcendent, almost unearthly badness – isn’t oddly comforting.

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(Not) too P to Q

Peter Howard sent in a listicle at NotAlwaysRight, "10 scams we're not too stupid to fall for", which describes ways that customers will try to fool cashiers, for example by switching price labels:  "it doesn’t take a genius to realise that a $50 bottle of liquor would not be mislabeled as $0.99 cheese-balls in any universe."

Peter observes that the headline "10 scams we're not too stupid to fall for" is not exactly over-negation, in the sense that removing the negation makes things worse rather than better — but still, there's something wrong.

This case is quite similar to the original "No head injury is too trivial to ignore" example — see "No detail too small", 11/27/2009, and "No wug is too dax to be zonged", 11/28/2009. Like may other examples of what we've taken to calling misnegation, such cases illustrate the fact that the interaction of negation and scalar predicates is hard enough for people to analyze that they easily jump to an interpretation that makes sense, even if it isn't the correct compositional analysis of the phrase in question.

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"Wasn't most certainly not resorting"?

Amanda Marcotte, "Just like a Bernie Bro, Sanders bullies Clinton: Brooklyn debate confirms Sanders campaign is sticking by sexist ambition witch stereotype", Salon 4/15/2016 (emphasis added):

Sanders made it clear that he wasn’t most certainly not resorting to inarguably sexist attacks on Clinton’s intelligence.

“Does Secretary Clinton have the experience and intelligence to be president? Of course she does,” Sanders replied when asked about it. “But I do question her judgment.” […]

So, to be excruciatingly clear here, Sanders is not talking about Clinton like she’s stupid. That said, that doesn’t mean he’s off the hook when it comes to whether or not this particular line of attack is sexist. There are ugly and unfair stereotypes used to discredit women besides assuming that they are blessed with less brainpower than men.

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Misnegations, or scribal errors?

JVB wrote to point out that there's apparently an extra negation in a quotation presented in a current New York Time book review (Janet Maslin, "‘Maestra,’ a Novel of Sex, Murder and Shopping', 4/12/2016, emphasis added):

“Maestra” is the work of L. S. Hilton, who is otherwise the British historian Lisa Hilton, but wanted to give voice to her inner babe. Ms. Hilton has talked up the independence and sexual freedom of her main character, Judith Rashleigh. But hold the phone: “Maestra” is terribly confused about what constitutes Judith’s idea of a good time. Sometimes she savors her bravado and channels James Bond. More often, she is a sad, status-seeking, increasingly homicidal opportunist/prostitute. “I’ve never met the girl who wasn’t prepared to hawk it when there wasn’t a bona fide billionaire in the room,” Judith confides.

So this looks like another addition to our long list of misnegation examples, "No post too obscure to escape notice". The usual factors are there: modality, multiple negation, and (at least implicitly) a scalar predicate.

But the unusual thing about this example is that the extra negation isn't there in the book to which the quotation is attributed.

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"Either… or…"

The following photographs come from an article on citizen protests in Lanzhou and Beijing openly demanding governmental transparency on public officials' personal assets (I am no longer able to access the article online).

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No head injury

[Below is a guest post by Gabriel Dupre]

Sentences of the form “No X is too Y to Z” are, in many cases, nightmares to process. The interaction of multiple negations (explicit and implicit), scalar adjectives and modals makes correctly interpreting such sentences very difficult. This has long been noted by linguists and psychologists. However, all of the accounts we can find of these types of sentences not only note the difficulty of a first-pass parse of the sentence, but also misinterpret the literal meaning.

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Negative stereotypes, utterly destroyed?

After last night's doozy of a Republican debate, Meghan McCain tweeted the following this morning:

McCain's dim view of the current crop of presidential candidates doesn't support the notion that they are "utterly destroying" negative stereotypes about Republicans, as several people pointed out. Quite the opposite, in fact.

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And or ou

As we've discussed more than once (e.g. "The billion-dollar conjunction", 12/30/2015), sometimes it's not clear how to interpret the choice between and and or, even when a lot depends on the answer. Adding to the list of such examples, R.A. sends in an example where English and has been translated as French ou.

This seems to be a matter of random stylistic preference rather than a difference between the languages, in that the English version might have chosen orand (or?) the French version might have chosen et, without changing the intended interpretation in either case. But at the same time, either choice in either language might perversely be given an unintended interpretation. Lawyers beware…

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Negation density record?

From Julian Hook:

Browsing some old Language Log posts recently, I came across "Prophylactic over-negation", 1/26/2012, featuring the phrase "It's not that I don't doubt…"

Something possessed me to hunt for other examples of the construction, which turned up a remarkable specimen in a piece about the personal life of Derek Jeter (Emily Shire, "Derek Jeter’s Lady-Killing Past Before Hannah Davis", 10/28/2015):

“It’s not that I don’t doubt that Jeter isn’t media-savvy.”

This sentence manages in ten and a half words to include one more negation than any of those in the LL post linked above. The context suggests that the intended meaning is something like “I concede that Jeter is media-savvy.” This might have been expressed using a common double-negative construction such as “I don’t doubt that Jeter is media-savvy” or “I don’t mean that Jeter isn’t media-savvy.” But here the writer couples “I don’t doubt” (2 negatives) with “isn’t” (3), and then ups the ante by negating the whole sentence via “It’s not that” (4). My suspicion is that it’s through nothing more than a stroke of luck that the negation parity seems somehow to come out correct in the end.

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Only connect

Bob Moore sent in a link to a story (Brooke Crothers, "Windows 10 will only work on newest PCs, says Microsoft", Fox News 1/18/2016), and commented:

I was confused when I saw this, because I am already running Windows 10 on several older PCs. When I read the article, I realized that what they meant to say was "Only Windows 10 will work on newest PCs, says Microsoft".

As far as I can tell, the editor who wrote the headline must also have been confused, since as far as I can tell, "Windows 10 will only work on newest PCs" can't possibly mean "Only Windows 10 will work on newest PCs".

This opinion is not a prescriptivist judgment about how the language ought to be interpreted, like most complaints about the placement of only, but a simple statement of how the phrase works (or doesn't work) for me. (And I suppose for Bob as well.)

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