Negation density record?

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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.

There are more like this one Out There:

[link] It's not that I don't doubt that certain key things weren't properly sterilized.
[link] Not that I don't doubt that advertising artists don't slip in naughty stuff…
[link] Not that I don't doubt that companies can't do altruistic, well-intentioned things;
[link] Not that I don't doubt that Prevost's reputation isn't warranted but I personally think the curved windows of the La Mirage are ghastly…
[link] not that I don't doubt that it couldn't happen.

I'll leave it to readers to determine whether all of these pass a logic parity check.

More important, I'm offering a prize (a year's free subscription to LLOG) for finding real-world examples with five or more negations in a dozen words, e.g. "Not that I don't doubt that his reputation isn't undeserved".

Some others that don't quite make it:

[link] I cannot deny that some of this negativity isn't deserved
[link] I won't deny that he isn't an undisputed documentary-maker
[link] I won't deny that the series isn't without its charms
[link] even the Spartans' head coach can't deny that Reid's style isn't necessarily bad
[link] Agree with me or not, you can't deny that it isn't a possibility he opts not to report after being drafted.

Anyhow, this one goes into the misnegations file, even if Julian's example comes out right in the end.





  1. Michael said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 9:23 am

    I had to resort to Hungarian for this one, and I cheated, because this is a clause of a longer sentence:
    "Soha semmi, senki nem foszthat meg többé ettül a melegségtül, boldogságtól bennünket."
    i.e.: "Never can no one and nothing not ever deprive us of this warmth, happiness"

  2. Simon K said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 9:24 am

    OK, this is probably cheating, as it's two separate clauses, but I tracked down this which from the first "not" to the second "but" has (at least) five negations in ten words.

    "it is not that I don’t have doubts , but I cannot but believe in it for myself…"


  3. James said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 10:38 am

    I think I've found a six-times-negated example.

    In a comment on a posting at The City Paper:

    Not that I don't doubt for a minute Metro Nashville leadership would not hesitate to ignore the deed's provisions if there were no heirs or they thought they could use double talk legalese to circumvent the details.

    I'm counting "hesitate to" as a negation, and "ignore" as a kind of negation of "follow". I am not counting the "no" in "no heirs" because it occurs in the subordinated "if" clause. Six, right?

    [(myl) Yes, I think you've won!]

  4. Sean Gleeson said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 12:00 pm

    From Douglas Adams, Life, the Universe, and Everything, Chapter XXXI

    "That young girl," he added unexpectedly, "is one of the least benightedly unintelligent organic life forms it has been my profound lack of pleasure not to be able to avoid meeting."

  5. Carolynn Spies said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 1:23 pm

    For the most compact and powerful negative, packing the most ooomph into one short statement: Hell, no: fuck that shit!

  6. bfwebster said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 2:20 pm

    This brings up the "interrogation of Pinocchio" scene in Shrek 3 (skip to about 1:00 in the video):

  7. GeorgeW said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 3:48 pm

    Not exactly what you are looking for, but heavy negative density:
    "And it's No, Nay, never,
    No, nay never no more
    Will I play the wild rover,
    No never no more. – Irish Rovers

  8. Boursin said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 5:12 pm

    Probably the best-known quadruple negation in English is in Mose Allison's "Parchman Farm": "I ain't never done no man no harm."

  9. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 5:57 pm

    These latest examples, though, are just cases of negative concord; we know that all the negatives intensify, so the overall sense of the sentence will always be negative. The example cited in the post is a more complex phenomenon, where it's clear that some of the negatives cancel out, but without context we don't know how many.

  10. Pflaumbaum said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 6:33 pm

    To add to Sean Gleason's Marvin quote, Stephen Fry has a character in The Liar, I believe based on a real Cambridge don, who talks much of the time in multiple negatives:

    "I am not going to consider failing to grant you the presence of narrative echoes," Tim Anderson replied, "But I would certainly find myself presented with personal difficulties if asked to deny that this is the mature Dickens of Little Dorritt and Bleak House.

  11. Scott said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 8:08 pm

    These sentences remind me of Classical Greek, which, in additional to negative concord, also has a phenomenon called "sympathetic negatives," where many verbs with a negative meaning, such as "doubt," "deny," "prevent," "avoid," and so on, take an infinitive with a redundant negative. If the main verb is then negated as well, the infinitive takes another, doubly redundant negative, resulting in three negatives where only one is logically necessary.

  12. TonyK said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 9:28 pm

    Andrew (not the same one): Yes, and Michael's Hungarian example is also just a case of negative concord (which is standard in Hungarian). There is nothing special about it at all — it just means "Never can anything or anybody deprive us any more…".

  13. jaap said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 4:10 am

    Another nice example van be found in the lyrics to Clever Trevor by Ian Dury and the Blockheads. It's a mix of negative concord and multiple negation.

    Just cos I ain't never 'ad, no, nothing worth having,
    Never ever, never ever,
    you ain't got no call not to think I wouldn't fall
    into thinking that I ain't too clever.

  14. GeorgeW said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 7:16 am

    Andrew (not the same one): Yes, but. A purist might claim in Boursin's example that there are 'double negatives' such that "I ain't never done no man no harm" means that the speaker is claiming to have done some person some harm.

  15. Boursin said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 8:21 am

    @ GeorgeW: Actually I vaguely recall a book or paper by an analytic philosopher with a(n obviously jocular) discussion of the line to that effect! But since a bit of very quick Googling failed to find it, I didn't mention it.

  16. Paul Blankenau said,

    February 25, 2016 @ 10:57 pm

    Readins don't never not done nothin for not nonebody. Never not no one. Didn't about no reason not never, and by God, they never not ain't gonna will!

    Early Cuyler

  17. Paul Blankenau said,

    February 25, 2016 @ 11:01 pm

    Readins don't never not done nothing for not nonebody. Never not no one. Didn't about no reason, not never, and by God, they never not ain't gonna will!

    Early Cuyler

    (Approximately, from memory.)

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