A classic overnegation

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Miguel Helft, "Twins’ Facebook Fight Rages On", NYT 12/30/2010 (emphasis added):

As they talked about the Facebook case, no detail was too small to omit, from where they first met Mr. Zuckerberg (the Kirkland House dining room) to the layout of Mr. Zuckerberg’s dorm room, to the content of the e-mails he had sent them after they asked him to do computer programming for a Web site called Harvard Connection.

This case, like many others, is analogous to the classic "No head injury is too trivial to be ignored".

You may wish not to fail to miss any of the posts on related topics collected here.

Those who have a hard time seeing the issue might start with this lovely two-part example, from David Dempsey, "What Should a Man Tell His Wife?; There is a fine line to be drawn between reticence and garrulity", NYT 11/30/1958:

No problem should be too large to cope with, none too small to ignore.

[Tip of the hat to Rick Rubenstein.]

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10 Comments »

  1. Fresh Sawdust said,

    December 31, 2010 @ 5:56 pm

    Having the 'No head injury…' example ending in '…to be ignored' rather than '…to ignore' (the latter of which is the phrasing I'm most familiar with) sure makes it easier to process, and if the participle were changed to a "definite adjective" then the sentence(s) would be even more processible than they apparently "aren't":

    No detail was [too small/small enough to be] omissible.
    No head injury is [too trivial/trivial enough to be] ignorable. (But is 'ignorable' really "a word"?).

  2. Twitter Trackbacks for A classic overnegation: Miguel Helft, "Twins’ Facebook Fight Rages On", NYT 12/30/2010 (emphasis added): As they... [upenn.edu] on Topsy.com said,

    December 31, 2010 @ 6:19 pm

    [...] A classic overnegation: Miguel Helft, "Twins’ Facebook Fight Rages On", NYT 12/30/2010 (… languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2877 – view page – cached [...]

  3. Fresh Sawdust said,

    December 31, 2010 @ 6:50 pm

    But actually the exact nature of the complement following the copula probably doesn't really matter, and I find the nature of the test design alluded to in the 'No head injury' link above a bit dodgy – surely one can't ask a 'should' or 'shouldn't' about an 'is/BE'*. ("For example, when presented with the sentence No WUG is too DAX to be ZONGED, six out of ten subjects felt that this implies WUGS should be ZONGED (which is correct, according to Wason and Reich), while four out of ten concluded that WUGS should not be ZONGED.").

    That it might've been undergraduates who apparently couldn't tell that what was being said was ultimately 'No wug is zonged' is a bit worrying, but no doubt the nonsense words and clinical test setting were major distractors.

    *Real overnegation testing would probably be more like the following: ML (a Mad Linguist, but nobody in particular, I should probably add! ;): "Now tell me, what does 'No wug isn't (not) zonged' mean? Is the poor wug zonged or not zonged?" BS (Bolting Student): "I'm outta here!" :)

  4. Aaron Toivo said,

    December 31, 2010 @ 10:44 pm

    "No detail was too small to omit" is clearly intended to mean the same thing as "No detail was too small to keep", but something is amiss: it really does mean that. It could never be used to mean the reverse or negation of it, no matter how well-formed that would be.

    Take a look what happens when you flip the first two polarity items instead: "Every detail was too large to omit". This also means the same thing that the original was intended to mean. And so does "No detail was too large to omit", and so does "Every detail was too small to omit". Out of all the permutations of flipping polarity items, not one easily permits a reading that is an actual negation of the originally intended one.

    Since "QUANTIFIER NOUN is/are too ADJ to be PARTICIPLE" is a formulaic phrasing, I think that we are in the territory of idioms with wonky syntax, not the territory of linguistic errors. The familiar purpose of the formula seems to override our usual negation mechanics.

  5. Fresh Sawdust said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 1:00 am

    @Aaron Toivo: I'm not sure pragmatically-speaking how 'No detail was too small to omit' (the wording in the original NYT article quoted by that nice Mr Liberman :) can really "mean the same thing" as 'No detail was too small to keep' ('keep out' would obviously be synonymous with 'omit', though). That being said, I'm not much of a linguist, so I do find these sorts of discussions a bit hard to follow sometimes! 8)

  6. baylink said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 2:15 am

    Good; I wasn't the only one who noticed.

  7. Stv said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 4:43 am

    @Fresh: If I was graduatable enough to be selectable, we would already be five out of ten. This not because grammatically WUGS shouldn't be ZONGED, grammatically they should, but because morally they probably should not. That sentence is prototypal of the gender specifics in language, that are enforced by rule and so grammatically distinguished in Japanese but not in English. In the context of trivial and menial tasks ( no gender related offense intended, it's just a matter of who is in charge of supervision ), WUGS are always to be ZONGED even if they are a little DAX. In the context of an Indian war, the use of such a sentence is an either vicious or impatient transgression because the trivial is exported out of its original context in order to be applied onto the alien. This can be sometimes verified in Doonesbury http://www.doonesbury.com/strip. Head injuries, that are not necessarily the domain of menial workers, still remain more or less related to the domain of washing.

  8. Ray Dillinger said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 11:52 am

    Stv, either you're typing through dissociated-press or that wasn't nutmeg on your eggnog last night.

  9. IMarvinTPA said,

    January 4, 2011 @ 3:49 pm

    "no detail was too small to omit" reads as "There were no details without enough significance to leave out" to me.

    Try: All details were large enough to include. or Every detail was large enough to include.

    To my programming mind there is a list of details with some size factor and a loop processing them with some size threshold like so: "if detail.size < size_limit then set detail.omit = true."
    After the loop completes, there were no details in the omitted set.

    IMarv

  10. Keith said,

    January 13, 2011 @ 11:01 am

    I'm wondering, now, if Stv can even be wrong…

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