Is the young soccer player Jack Wilshere ready to start playing on the England team? Don't dig into your sports knowledge, because this is Language Log, not Soccer Log, and we are interested in what Arsene Wenger (coach of Wilshere's team, Arsenal) said in answer to this question. According to Reuters (take a deep breath and start counting negations):
"Is he ready to start for England against France next month? If you asked me the reverse question, is he not ready to start for England, then it would be difficult to not say no."
OK, now, let's take this nice and slow. If it is difficult to not say no to the question of whether he's not ready, then one is inclined to say no as the answer to the question, and if the question of whether he's not ready is understood to be the question of whether he's unready, then saying no to the question of whether he's unready means saying he's not unready, which means Arsene Wenger thinks he has to incline toward saying Wilshere is ready. I hope you're with me so far, because it gets worse.
Does Wenger think what thus far we think he thinks? Did he even say what we think he said? On the Arsenal club's own website, the remark is quoted as follows:
"If you ask me the reverse question — is he not ready to play for England — then it would be difficult to say no."
If it would be difficult to say no to "Is he not ready?", and the question is construed as "Is he unready?", then Wenger thinks it would be difficult to deny that Wilshere is unready. So he inclines to the view that Wilshere is not ready.
But wait, it gets worse still.
The question "Is he not ready to play for England?" has another construal: it can be a way of asking a biased question, expecting a positive answer about his readiness. (Is that not true? Of course it is.) And in that case saying "no" might mean giving the counter-to-expectation answer "No [that is, I disagree with the bias of the question toward his being ready], he's not ready." So under the Reuters version Wenger would be saying it would be difficult not to give this negative answer (so Wilshere is not ready), and under the arsenal.com transcription he would be saying it is difficult to give it (so Wilshere is ready).
Let's face it, we not only don't know whether Wilshere is ready, we also don't have any idea whether Wenger thinks he is, and in fact we don't even know what Wenger said.
Sometimes one despairs of using natural language for communication of propositions between humans, when it is so manifestly not suited to the task. Sports fans should just wait to see if Wenger picks Wilshere for the team, and supporters of the view that English is a wonderful, clear, logical medium for the lucid expression of thought should just hang their heads and cry.
Hat tip: Rob Truswell.