Archive for Semantics

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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Annals of singular 'they': another case with known sex

Karen Thomson, a Sanskritist and antiquarian bookseller living in Oxford, wrote to me to point out the following very significant example of singular they in a Financial Times interview with TV writer and director Jill Soloway:

People will recognise that just because somebody is masculine, it doesn't mean they have a penis. Just because somebody's feminine, it doesn't mean they have a vagina. That's going to be the evolution over the next five years.

You see what makes this not just a dramatic claim in terms of sexual politics but a linguistically very revealing example?

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"It didn't fail to disappoint"

A lovely misnegation sent in by David Denison — Kevin Mitchell, "‘There was so much noise’ says Jamie Murray after Davis Cup doubles win", The Guardian 11/28/2015 [emphasis added]:

“There was so much noise,” Jamie said. “It was mental. There’s a low roof as well so everything’s packed in. We were shouting to each other at the baseline trying to tell each other where we were going to serve. But it was brilliant. It’s a Davis Cup final – we expected it to be noisy, a lot of passion and fans out here. It didn’t fail to disappoint.”

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"Often more [difficulty] than in this chosen pair"

We've often complained about the ignorant aftermath of E.B. White's ignorant 1959 incitement to which-hunting, which launched the idea that restrictive (or integrated, or defining) relative clauses in English should always and only be introduced by that, while non-restrictive (or supplementary, or non-defining) relative clauses should be introduced by which. (See "Reddit blewit" 12/24/2012 for details and additional links. Note that for simplicity, I'm considering only relative clauses with inanimate/nonhuman heads, though the fundamental point remains the same when we add who to the mix.)

My point today is that the whole distinction is a false one.

More exactly: The traditional restrictive/non-restrictive dichotomy merges distinct morphological, syntactic, semantic, prosodic, rhetorical, and psychological questions; the correlation among these different dimensions is loose at best; several of the relevant distinctions are gradient rather than categorical; and some of the distinctions are sometimes a matter of pragmatic vagueness rather than grammatical ambiguity.

If I'm right, then modern linguists have been committing White's sin in a less extreme form, trying to impose an over-simplified rationalist taxonomy on a more complex linguistic reality.

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