Archive for Semantics

Indistinguishable misnegation

David Frum, "Donald Trump's Bad Bet on Anger", The Atlantic 7/21/2016 [emphasis added]:

Donald Trump’s supporters yearn for the country as it was and fear the country as it is. Tonight’s powerfully dystopian Trump nomination acceptance address will touch them at their deepest emotional core. It will ignite a passionate spasm of assent from those many, many Americans—mostly but not exclusively white, mostly but not exclusively less affluent and educated—who experience today as worse than yesterday, and anticipate a tomorrow worse than today.

Don’t think it won’t work. It will work. The speech will be viewed and viewed again, on cable news and social media. The travails and troubles of this dysfunctional convention will recede, even if their implications and consequences linger. Trump’s poll numbers will probably rise. Small-dollar donations will surely flow. Many wavering Republicans will come home—even if the home to which they now return has changed in ways that render it almost indistinguishable from the dwelling it used to be.

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On this day

Paul Ryan's July 4 statement (emphasis added):

On this year’s Fourth, we can celebrate the historic document that was signed—and the self-evident truths it declared. We can celebrate the historic battles that were fought so that those truths would embrace all of our people. We can remember the extraordinary men and women, so dedicated to those truths, who died on this day—and the millions of others whose names we’ll never know. Or we can remember—and give thanks—that we live in a country where all these things are possible. We still believe in those self-evident truths. We still struggle to live up to them. And really, what that struggle represents is the pursuit of happiness. So today, with great gratitude, we celebrate our independence.

Could Speaker Ryan (or the intern who wrote this statement) have meant "on this day" to modify "We can remember"? Or are invited to remember the people who died in historic battles specifically on July 4? Puzzling.

Update — Jenny Chu points out that Adams, Jefferson and Monroe died on July 4. I was led away from that interpretation by the previous discussion of "historic battles" and the reference to "extraordinary men and women" who died on that day, as well as the following "millions of others".  And now I also wonder what we're meant to understand by "all these things" — the document? the truths? the battles? the deaths? All of them?

Perhaps this message is a lightly-adapted version of  an all-purpose patriotic-holiday exhortation.

[h/t Adam Rosenthal]

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Misnegation correction

Dahlia Lithwick, "The Ideal Allies", Slate 6/27/2016:

Make no mistake, Whole Woman’s Health is a massive win for choice, even though nobody believed that the very core of Planned Parenthood v. Casey wasn't in peril this term.*

*Update, June 27, 2016: This story also originally said nobody believed that the very core of Planned Parenthood v. Casey was in peril this term. The author meant to propose the opposite.

Don Monroe, who sent in this addition to the misnegation files, noted that the revision

is correct but seems to exacerbate rather than reduce the challenge of interpreting it. I would have said “even though nobody doubted that the very core of Planned Parenthood v. Casey was in peril this term.”

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Illusion

Bob Ladd sent in a link to "Five Questions on Brexit to Jo Shaw", Verfassungsblog 6/24/2016 [emphasis added]:

There’s a possibility for the Article 50 trigger to be delayed, and the UK simply to carry on in membership, and then – once the UK population has had long enough to digest the real implications of Leave […] a second referendum could be held, perhaps this time under better conditions. I’m not sure that this will happen, though, precisely because the issue is complicated by the internal territorial pressures discussed in the next section. I don’t think anyone is under any illusion that Boris Johnson is not some sort of ideological Leaver, so it could be that if he becomes Prime Minister then we will see moves in this direction.

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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 the author 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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