Archive for Misnegation

"Understatement" misstatement

Here's the opening to Dahlia Lithwick and Scott Pilutik's piece for Slate, "Lies My Client Told Me" (10/31/17), about a judge ruling that Paul Manafort is not entitled to attorney-client privilege:

It’s not an overstatement to characterize the attorney-client privilege as the cornerstone of criminal law, an inviolable right that can and must withstand all manner of legal aggression.

There's an asterisk after the sentence, however, indicating that a correction has been made. At the bottom of the article, a note reads:

*Correction, Oct. 31, 2017: This piece originally misstated that it would not be an understatement to characterize the attorney-client privilege as the cornerstone of criminal law. It would not be an overstatement.

It's remarkable that a correction was made in the first place, since misnegations involving understate(ment) are so common that they hardly even get noticed these days. Last August, Mark Liberman shared a tweet by Los Angeles Times correspondent Matt Pearce in which he quickly corrected his use of "difficult to understate," but such second thoughts are exceedingly rare. Again and again, the sort of thing that one would want to identify as "not an overstatement" is routinely called "not an understatement," at Slate and elsewhere.

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'Difficult to understate' correction

Here the source of the inversion corrects it within a few minutes:

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(Not) not too crazy

Tom Recht sent in a link to a story in N.Y. Magazine with the headline "Trump is not too crazy to fire the special prosecutor". His accompanying note suggested that

…the intended but not quite computable meaning is "it isn't the case that Trump isn't crazy enough to fire the special prosecutor".

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Another misunderestimation

Devin Henry, "Globe heaps scorn on Trump for Paris exit", The Hill 6/3/2017:

“I really think that is the major consequence of today: it’s not about the Paris agreement,” said Christiana Figueres, the former head of the United Nation’s climate change mission.  

“I think the real problem today and the real sadness is the absolute death blow to the international credibly of the current U.S. leadership. … The blow to the international political credibility of the United States really cannot be underestimated.”

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Not very difficult at all?

"Cyberattack thwarted by flipping 'kill switch' but experts fear new blitz", ABC News 5/13/2017

The attack appears to have been thwarted by private cybersecurity researchers who identified and triggered the malware’s "kill switch," which halted the attacks before it spread throughout U.S. networks, a senior U.S. intelligence official confirmed, but it is unclear whether, the official said, a modified attack will soon be launched.  

"That is a huge concern right now," said Darien Huss, a senior security research engineer at Proofpoint who was among the researchers who helped disable the virus, called "WannaCry," told ABC News today. "It would not be very difficult at all to re-release this ransomware attack without a kill switch or without an approved kill switch that only they can activate."

That second "without" should be "with", I think. Anyhow we've got most of the usual misnegation suspects — a modal, a scalar predicate, a few negatives — which make sentences semantically difficult. And here the disjunction of prepositional phrases adds to the  difficulty.

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I (don't) doubt that the letter is fake

Somebody just sent me a note that begins, "I don’t doubt that the letter is fake…".

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Not not

This is NOT a post about misnegation, a frequent topic at Language Log.  This is a reflection on the sublimity of nonnegation, which is not quite the same as transcendental affirmation.  It is a linguistic and philosophical inquiry on the absence of nothingness.

First comes the linguistics; at the end comes the philosophy.

In Mandarin, we have expressions such as the following, where the bù 不 doesn't seem to make any sense in terms of its usual signification — "not":

suānbuliūliūde 酸不溜溜的 ("sourish; quite sour")

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You couldn't fail to miss Melania

Mr John Kelly, an attorney for Melania Trump, reading out a statement concerning why she has just scored nearly $3million in a London libel suit (reported here in The Guardian; I reproduce the use of "right-handed" found in the article, despite its oddness):

The article was illustrated with an old photograph of the claimant standing naked with her front against a wall but her face turned towards the camera. The photograph was prominently displayed and occupied almost the entire right-handed side of page 15. Readers of the newspaper could not fail to miss the article.

But of course Mr Kelly means they could not fail to see it. Or could not possibly miss it. Semantic overnegation again, this time in a prepared statement by an attorney dealing crucially with details of language and meaning. Amazing. But richly documented in scores of previous posts here on Language Log.

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From Senator Maria Cantwell's Facebook wall:

Any attempt to say that Judge Gorsuch is not anything but overly qualified for this job is blasphemous.

Misnegation, or not? The layered uses of any make the calculation harder.

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"No underestimating the headache"

Ellen Eldridge and Raisa Habersham, "I-85 collapses after massive fire: ‘The entire bridge is compromised’", Atlanta Journal-Constitution 3/31/2017:

The bridge on I-85 northbound just south of Ga. 400 near Piedmont Road collapsed about 7 p.m., Atlanta fire spokesman Sgt. Cortez Stafford confirmed.

No injuries to motorists or first responders were reported.  

Officials said they still don't know how long it will take to fix the bridge, but they agree there is no underestimating the headache that awaits commuters.

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Misunderestimation of the month

"Scottish parliament to seek new independence vote despite UK government rebuff", Reuters 3/22/2017:

Holding a non-binding referendum would be damaging, argues Stephen Tierney, Professor of Constitutional Theory at Edinburgh Law School, because it would not provide certainty in a highly divisive situation.  

"The central importance of commonly agreed rules and a neutral referee in a situation of deep disagreement when the stakes are high cannot be under-estimated," he said.

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"Denying that he was not anti-gay or anti-women"

Matt Apuzzo, "Under Trump, Approach to Civil Rights Law Is Likely to Change Definitively", NYT 1/19/2017:

At this confirmation hearing, Mr. Sessions harkened to the era of segregation in arguing that there was no need for the federal government to become involved in prosecuting crimes against women or gay people that were already being prosecuted locally. “I am not sure women or people with different sexual orientations face that kind of discrimination. I just don’t see it,” Mr. Sessions said, denying that he was anti-gay or anti-women.

According to Larry Horn, the last clause originally featured an additional not:

“I am not sure women or people with different sexual orientations face that kind of discrimination. I just don’t see it,” Mr. Sessions said, denying that he was not anti-gay or anti-women.

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Negative concord at the New Republic?

Jess Row, "What Are White Writers For?", The New Republic 9/30/2016:

It was around this time that I first realized something nonwhite writers learn almost by default: for a fiction writer to deny that fiction is in some way political—in the sense of existing in an inherently politicized world—is not only an act of bad faith but a kind of artistic failure. How can we not, as writers, grasp that our own political existence, our own subjectivity, our citizenship, our racial and cultural identities, and the arguments of our time, are not material for our art, that these things are in some sense not all part of one ongoing conversation?
 [emphasis added]

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