Negative stereotypes, utterly destroyed?

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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.

Nancy Friedman brought this to our attention, calling it "an odd sort of overnegation." It does have the flavor of misnegations we've discussed in the past (see this list of posts), though it lacks the "combination of modals, negatives, and scalar predicates" that we typically see creating semantic problems. So how to explain the confusion?

To me it feels like McCain is shoehorning a couple of different concepts into one sentence. On the one hand, as the above responses indicate, she would like to convey how all the negative stereotypes she has sought to combat have only been reinforced/confirmed by the primary candidates' antics. But her use of "utterly destroyed" is telling: she must feel that something has been destroyed in the process (perhaps her own party?). I suspect this sort of sentiment was lurking in her mind when she composed the tweet:

All the work I've done trying to combat negative stereotypes about Republicans for the last 8 years has been utterly destroyed in the past 9 months.

Then, in producing the tweet, her efforts in combating negative stereotypes got conflated with the stereotypes themselves. I'd chalk it up to the terse style of Twitter, which can end up curtailing complex ideas. And yet I find it notable that most of McCain's Twitter interlocutors (Twitterlocutors?) seemed to understand exactly what she meant despite a literal reading implying the opposite. As with more classic cases of misnegation, we tend to zero in on the intended meaning of a statement thanks to context, regardless of its surface sense.


  1. Bruce said,

    March 4, 2016 @ 11:10 am

    The situation in modern colloquial English seems to be something like Spanish: multiple negations piled on reinforce each other:

    *I don't ever want to see him again, nowhere, nohow,

    I've put the conventional * at the beginning to acknowledge that every English teacher will mark that sentence "wrong", but if heard it will be understood, and I expect to hear it more often than the grammatical alternative:
    I never expect to see him again anywhere, under any circumstances.

    Note that I couldn't flip "nohow" into a positive word without using a phrase. Maybe others are better at it than I am.

  2. Chris Waigl said,

    March 4, 2016 @ 11:53 am

    I agree. "All my [combating negative stereotypes] has been utterly destroyed/annihilated".

  3. Keith said,

    March 4, 2016 @ 12:58 pm

    @ Bruce,
    Maybe that's true for the US, where there is much more English – Spanish contact, but I haven't notice this increasing in British usage, at least not in what passes for "formal" or "written" English.

    Any road up, when I read the statement I understood that what had been destroyed was the effort that Meghan McCain put in to combat the negative stereotypes.

  4. David Morris said,

    March 4, 2016 @ 1:06 pm

    In the sense of destroying the goalposts where they stand/stood and installing a new set about 50 metres further back?

  5. Eneri Rose said,

    March 4, 2016 @ 2:33 pm

    This reminds me of some of my least favorite song lyrics. In Rod Stewart's "Tonight's The Night (Gonna Be Alright) he sings "Don't say a word my virgin child. Just let your inhibitions run wild." I don't think this is what he actually wants. If she let her inhibitions run wild, she probably would not do a thing. She would be paralyzed by all her inhibitions. I guess this is something like a negative without a positive *hibitions.

  6. Andrew W said,

    March 4, 2016 @ 2:38 pm

    I parsed this a little differently — that she meant something like "People used to have (mere) stereotypes of the Republicans, but we now find that they are no longer stereotypes but are rather real". I can just about see that someone might refer to that as "destroying stereotypes", i.e. what has been destroyed is a construal of these images *as stereotypes* (rather than as correct impressions). I don't think I could myself say "destroy stereotypes" to mean that, but is that a possibility for what she might have meant?

  7. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 4, 2016 @ 3:26 pm

    Bruce: True, a lot of English speakers use "negative concord" when speaking colloquially—and a lot don't—but I don't see how it's related to this example. If you click on Prof. Liberman's "this list", you'll see that he and others have discussed it as a possibility for more typical misnegations.

    Keith: I don't think negative concord has been increasing in American usage. It's been here for a long time. In fact it used to be as standard as English could get. "He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde…" I doubt Spanish influence has anything to do with it.

  8. Rubrick said,

    March 4, 2016 @ 3:27 pm

    Perhaps the stereotypes she was referring to were "stuffy, unemotional, having a false veneer of civility…" ;-)

  9. maidhc said,

    March 4, 2016 @ 6:34 pm

    I understand it more because I know who Meghan McCain is and I have a predetermined concept of the sort of things she would have to say. If it were someone I'd never heard of, I'd probably take a different meaning from it.

  10. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 4, 2016 @ 6:56 pm

    I had never previously noticed the oddity of that Rod Stewart lyric, and would not have expected to have it drawn to my attention in the context of a post about a political tweet, so huzzah for Language Log. I think the best way to save the lyric in context is to construe it as attempting to mean something like "let your inhibitions go off duty for the evening and have some fun themselves," although it's still awkward.

  11. Peter said,

    March 5, 2016 @ 8:49 am

    […] it lacks the “combination of modals, negatives, and scalar predicates” that we typically see creating semantic problems. So how to explain the confusion?

    Could one of the contributing factors be that combating something is a sort of negative-polarity construct, although not quite so straightfowardly as grammatical negation?

  12. Brett said,

    March 5, 2016 @ 9:31 am

    I agree with Peter. The characteristic negative polarity of "combating" is definitely part of the picture here.

  13. Marnanel said,

    March 5, 2016 @ 8:07 pm

    I saw Stephens's tweet about "reinforced rather than destroyed" first on Twitter, and then I couldn't work out whether Stephens was disagreeing with McCain or glossing what she'd said. I gave up trying to work it out after a minute or so, so thanks for the explanation!

  14. Chas Belov said,

    March 5, 2016 @ 11:48 pm

    @Bruce: I would have expected "I don't never want to see him again, nowhere, nohow."

  15. Ted said,

    March 7, 2016 @ 5:26 pm

    I think I agree with David Morris. I understood McCain to be saying the equivalent of "I spent 8 years trying to combat the existing negative stereotypes of Republicans, and that has now been rendered pointless because in one night, these guys have created new negative stereotypes that utterly destroy the old ones (inasmuch as the new ones are so much more powerful as negative stereotypes that people won't remember the old ones)."

    But perhaps I was giving her too much credit.

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