Difficulty over not saying no on not being ready

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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.

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20 Comments »

  1. John Cowan said,

    October 21, 2010 @ 10:22 am

    English? English?? Absurd. Ce qui n'est pas clair n'est pas français; ce qui n'est pas clair est encore anglais, italien, grec ou latin. Note which language comes first in the not-necessarily-logical-at-best sweepstakes.

  2. Pflaumbaum said,

    October 21, 2010 @ 10:32 am

    We can surely discount the 'biased question' parsing, as that wouldn't qualify, except in purely syntactic terms, as 'the reverse question' to "Is he ready?"

    Looking at the Arsenal.com quote, it can be interpreted the same way as the Reuters one, if you allow that by "no" Wenger means, "No, he's not ready" – he's quoting the 'reverse question' in an abbreviated form, in order to reject it: It is difficult to say "No, he's not ready" – i.e. he's ready.

    I know Prof. Pullum is being tongue-in-cheek. But for the record it is easy to know what Wenger means, but to do so it's necessary to 'dig into our sports knowledge' to see the implicature.

    Given that Wenger is extremely committed to his youth policy and inordinately proud of the quality of his youngsters, it's highly unlikely that he would undermine one of them by affirming that he's not ready for the national team. But he's also reluctant to over-hype Wilshire, no doubt influenced by what happened in the past with another of his young charges, Theo Walcott. So he opts for faint praise, rather like saying someone is 'not unattractive'.

  3. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    October 21, 2010 @ 10:34 am

    Vandana Bajaj is in the midst of some interesting experimentation involving the interpretation of multiple negation in English. It seems to show that many people have trouble actually processing "logical" negation, and instead often end up with a negative concord reading for multiple negation.

  4. LE said,

    October 21, 2010 @ 10:38 am

    Sometimes when I'm asked if I'm ready to present at lab meeting, I respond, "Well, I'm not unprepared." What I mean when I say this is that, while I'm not going to bowl anyone over, I'm certainly ABLE to present. I see what Wenger said as being very similar–he's trying to say that the player is capable of holding his own in the league, but he's not going to wow anyone with his abilities.

  5. Pflaumbaum said,

    October 21, 2010 @ 10:48 am

    That's right in essence LE, if not in detail. Wilshire's probably the best talent of his age in the league. Wenger's not saying he won't wow people with his abilities – he already has – he's saying he's just over the borderline in terms of being mature enough for the international level.

  6. HeatherR said,

    October 21, 2010 @ 10:49 am

    He seems to have two sets of criteria – one for being ready and one for not being ready. The player doesn't seem to be able to fulfill the "not ready" criteria, but he hasn't fulfilled the "ready" criteria, at least in the coach's mind.

    I hear something like this from family members in the medical field with regards to "sick" and "healthy" usually stated like: "I can't say he's sick, but he's certainly not healthy."

  7. I.D. Mercer said,

    October 21, 2010 @ 11:11 am

    Like many North Americans, I don't know much about soccer — at least individual players. But my knowledge of English causes me to more or less agree with LE.

    I agree the sentence is convoluted, but it's not too much of a stretch to interpret it as one of those "double negatives" that feels a bit "weaker" than a straightforward positive.

    "Do you like eggplant?" "Well, I don't dislike it."

  8. Kevin Iga said,

    October 21, 2010 @ 11:45 am

    My roommate, who is a soccer fan, points out the following: Wenger may deliberately want to confuse the interviewer. Wilshere plays for Arsenal, where Wenger is coach. That is club soccer. People in club soccer sometimes also play for the national team for things like the Eurocup and World Cup, etc. That carries a lot of prestige. Fans want to see good players play for the national team. But Wenger does not: he wants his good players rested and ready for club games. Especially since Wilshere, being small, is more prone to injuries when slide-tackled, for instance. He wouldn't want Wilshere to get injured at a national game before he gets to really do good stuff for Arsenal.

    On the one hand he doesn't want to say, "No, he's not ready", because that may be bad for Wilshere's morale, and suggest he's not ready for Arsenal. On the other he doesn't want to say, "Yes, he's ready", because then he would be encouraging the English national team to use him.

    So when a reporter asks Wenger, "Is Wilshere ready?", Wenger answers in a way that keeps everyone guessing.

  9. Lazar said,

    October 21, 2010 @ 11:53 am

    I.D. Mercer: That sentence reminds me of one of my favorite jokes on Futurama. A mysterious woman asks Fry, "Have you heard of the Monks of Deshuba?", and he replies, "I've… not heard of them," intoned as if "not" simply modifies the verb, rather than negating it.

  10. Mr Punch said,

    October 21, 2010 @ 12:24 pm

    It's interesting (at least to me) that this sentence can be clarified by using a contraction: "Is he not ready to play?" is much less clear than "Isn't he ready to play?" Wenger is reportedly quite the polyglot, but he's not a native speaker of English, and contractions can be a problem for non-native speakers; on the other hand, he probably intended the other meaning.

  11. Leo said,

    October 21, 2010 @ 12:41 pm

    Arsène Wenger is French, and we may excuse him for the occasional lapse in his English.

    But this post does remind me of something you should never say. If you ask someone a yes/no question, and you don't hear their answer, you should always follow up with "Was that yes?" Never say "Was that no?", because the respondent will not know whether they should now answer your first or your second question, whose answers will be opposite to one another.

  12. A.D. Pask-Hughes said,

    October 21, 2010 @ 1:29 pm

    Knowing the situation, it just looks like a way of hedging. If he was to say, "yes, he is ready", he can be held accountable for that: Wilshere is a young player with a lot of potential but, as has happened in the past, with such potential comes a great chance of not living up to it. The media hypes up a player and then he doesn't live up to the hype. By directly stating that he is ready, Wenger would be contributing to that.

    In essence, I interpret it as suggesting that "he is ready" but trying to shift the responsibility of actually directly stating that. Perhaps he was saying that he is ready technically, but not necessarily 'emotionally' (and so on).

  13. mollymooly said,

    October 21, 2010 @ 2:23 pm

    Since Wenger is French, I think the difficulty is not between "yes" and "no", but between "oui" and "si".

  14. Clayton Burns said,

    October 21, 2010 @ 2:29 pm

    GKP has keyed in on something with perhaps more than mortal significance, but being disadvantaged by his position on the globe, he has failed to note the most infamous triple negative in recent history (on this, the right side of the Atlantic), from Susan Carey:

    “I would not think there is not a single professor at Harvard who is not ambitious, in the sense of intellectually ambitious,” Carey says.

  15. Peter said,

    October 21, 2010 @ 3:30 pm

    As an insurance agent I seldom hear people say "no." They instead resort to roundabout means of saying "no" without actually uttering that dreaded word:

    Let me think about it.
    Let me check with my wife.
    Let me check my schedule and get back to you.
    My schedule is totally crazy, there's no way I can meet with you.
    My [relative] is in the insurance field, I do all of my business with him/her.

    And then there's the most absurd line of all, which believe it or not I've heard from two separate businesses within the past six months:

    Our corporate office makes all the decisions about insurance. They're in the process of moving right now and don't really have an address, so there's no way to contact them.

  16. Rubrick said,

    October 21, 2010 @ 7:06 pm

    While it would be wrong of me not to argue that Wenger's comment lacks nothing when it comes to a failure of clarity, I contend that it is nonetheless not unmeaningless.

  17. Nijma said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 1:26 am

    Reminds me of Bilbo's farewell speech at his 50th birthday party right before setting off on his Ring journey, (from memory), " I know less than half of you half as well as I would like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve."

  18. PaulB said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 4:04 am

    The question and answer can be heard here. at about 1:26.

    Wenger in fact says:

    I, er, without wanting to make headlines, er, it's difficult to say. If you ask me the reverse question – do you think he's not ready to play for England – it's difficult to say no.

    The opening sentence gives the reason for his circumlocution: he doesn't want to be reported as saying "Wilshere should play for England". I suppose that Wenger intended his construction to mean "…it's difficult to say 'no, he's not ready'".

    It seems that someone at Reuters thought Wenger's reply didn't say what it was meant to say, and inserted the additional negative.

  19. Rick S said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 8:45 am

    In answer to the question "Is Wilshere not ready?", "Yes" is usually interpreted to mean "Yes, he is ready", and "No" is usually interpreted to mean "No, he is not ready". In both cases, however, a strictly propositional analysis would result in the opposite conclusion, and an astute (and cagey) speaker can rely on this fact for plausible deniability–particularly, as in Wenger's case, a speaker who can claim non-native command of English pragmatics.

    The alternate construction "Isn't Wilshere ready?" evokes answers with the same kind of potential ambiguity. However, I don't think the degree of ambiguity is the same for both constructions. My inclination is to say that the contracted form biases more strongly toward the anti-propositional analysis, but it may well depend upon context.

    In my mind, "Is Wilshere unready?" is a very different question from either of the above, pragmatically speaking–one for which the usual interpretation matches the propositional one. Equating it with the "Is Wilshere not ready?" construction gets a yellow card.

  20. Atmir Ilias said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 2:11 am

    Indirect speeches have some advantages of the direct speeches. The original sentence of Wenger, of course, is going to be captured with limitations from us. Wenger says something with appropriate intentions, but what does it exactly mean? “Is difficult to say No” always must be related "to whom" and "to what”. Is it related specifically to him, or to the Arsenal fans, or to England fans, or both? Or, however, he does not want to say a clear “No” for the simple reason of team's interests. Or it is just relevant for Arsenal fans. Or even he wants to say simultaneously an unclear "No" for England team, because he does not like to get a bad figure in front of England fans. Maybe it is more delicate because of his nationality and he does want to give a clear answer to the case England against France, which was really a predisposed intrigue of the interviewer that would involve everyone.
    Or it is only a tricky plan for the next game to give wrong ideas on what kind of tactical would be used without having Wilshere.
    He found the indirect way that is always a little tricky of understanding. It needs more time than usually to find out where is the language measurement.

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