The second life of "In no uncertain terms"

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"In no uncertain terms" is an idiom in which the "no" and the "un-" cancel, so that the result means something like "in very specific and direct language", "very clearly", "in a strong and direct way", or perhaps "emphatically". In other words, "in no uncertain terms" means "in certain terms", construing "certain" as in certainty. The earliest example that I've been able to find is this sentence from the Chicago Tribune, July 20 1863:

Our dispatches contain another circular from the Provost Marshal General's office, and accompanying, the voice of the Government, couched in no uncertain terms, that the draft will be enforced in every loyal State, without fear or favor.

And "in no uncertain terms" is still being used that way, as in this example from today's New York Times:

After last week, the question now is: Why am I writing a post this week instead of sleeping?

When more than 200 people tell you, in no uncertain terms, that the first step to dealing with the exhaustion incurred when a child does not sleep is to find ways and moments for you, yourself, to sleep, that’s a fair question.

But recently, through the miracle of misnegation, this elderly cliché has found a new role in life.

Cynthia McLemore spotted an example Ben McGrath's article "Does football have a future: The NFL and the concussion crisis", The New Yorker, 1/31/2011:

Please ignore the "beg the question" usage — or read this post if  equanimity in the face of question-begging is beyond your powers — and contemplate the captalized assertion that "IN NO UNCERTAIN TERMS DO I BELIEVE THAT WE SHOULD OUTLAW OR "WUSS DOWN' CONTACT SPORTS".

If we temporarily leave aside the subject-auxiliary inversion ("do I believe" rather than "I believe"), we  take this to say the opposite of what Dustin Fink means. Using the traditional interpretation of "in no uncertain terms", it seems to mean "Emphatically, (do) I believe that we should outlaw or wuss down contact sports", whereas he clearly means "In no way (do) I believe that we should outlaw or wuss down contact sports".

Let's note that Dustin is not alone in using "in no uncertain terms" to mean something like "in no way", as a search for "in no uncertain terms do I" demonstrates:

I am 25 wks pregnant now and I have told my partner in no uncertain terms do I want another one that close!!
One thing to id like to make clear i do know this person and in no uncertain terms do i support his group,in fact he sickens me.
In no uncertain terms do I want my tax money used to issue school vouchers.
i hope that explains that in no uncertain terms do I disagree with ben regarding our military nor do i disagree with him about the situation
thirdly, in no uncertain terms do I excuse rape, or will ever excuse rape
in no uncertain terms, do i want her kissing any of my children on the lips, least of all my infant – ever

But now let's get back to that subject-auxiliary inversion. It's an interesting characteristic of contemporary English that with initial negative adjuncts, subject-aux inversion happens just in case the negation takes scope over the following clause. Thus consider this pair:

(a) With no friends, John would be happy.
(b) WIth no friends would John be happy.

Sentence (a) means roughly that if he had no friends, John would be happy. In that case, the scope of the negation is limited to the interpretation of the prepositional phrase.

Sentence (b) means roughly that there are no friends such that John would be happy if he had them; and in that case, the negation takes scope over the interpretation of the whole sentence.

(This curious connection between form and meaning was the subject of one of my first published papers, "On conditioning the rule of subject-auxiliary inversion", in Ellen Kaisse and Jorge Hankamer, Eds., Papers from the Fifth Annual Meeting of the North East Linguistic Society, 1974.)

Note that when the people take "in no uncertain terms" to mean something like "in no way at all" rather than "emphatically", they uniformly seem to use subject-aux inversion, as illustrated by these web examples:

Admittedly, the No. 4 seeded Eden Prairie High School boys soccer team opned Section 2AA play Thursday with a chip on its shoulder. In no uncertain terms did they think they deserved the No. 4 seed and if Bloomington Kennedy, Thursday's opponent, was in any way responsible, they were going to pay.

In no uncertain terms will I ever support any legislation that infringes on the rights of law abiding citizens to keep and bear arms

In no uncertain terms does the mayor condone any behavior of this sort.

In no uncertain terms should hitting your dog be considered appropriate punishment.

In contrast, when people mean a clause-initial instance of this phrase in the conventional, old-fashioned way, they don't invert:

In no uncertain terms she blamed “that spoiled Addison girl” whom Elijah D. had married for the unwashed aspect of that “somber hard-faced boy".

In no uncertain terms, he wants the press to know that Oswald isn't being mistreated.

In no uncertain terms he told them that Jesus is holding everything together!

You'll be pleased to hear we're committed to providing the best of everything and in no uncertain terms we feel our unique product offers the best solution …

In no uncertain terms, he reeled off the news about Iran, why it was bad, what it meant for the markets, why it wasn't priced in to the markets, and what would probably happen.

[Update -- Those of you who have checked out Dustin Fink's Concussion Blog will have noticed that in addition to providing excellent information about the issues around concussions in general, and sports-related concussions in particular, it's overall quite a rich source of syntactic innovation: "All information and photos are brought to you via the blog is for the intent of education and communication of concussions"; "WE JUST NEED TO BE EDUCATED AS TO PREVENT LONG TERM EFFECTS AND DEATHS"; "By developing this blog it is the hopes that we can create a community for support, education and communication for this rising epidemic"; etc.]

[Update #2 -- The Google n-gram viewer seems to confirm that the phrase "in no uncertain terms" originated in the mid-19th C., and came into widespread use after 1900:

I'm not sure how to explain the apparent fact that usage leveled off around the end of WWII -- as often with the n-gram counts, it's not clear to what extent this is a change in the language and to what extent it's a change in the mix of books in the underlying corpus.

But checks with other sources (e.g. COCA and BNC) do confirm that "in no uncertain terms" has in recent decades become somewhat more common than "under no circumstances".]

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22 Comments »

  1. Melissa Fox said,

    January 24, 2011 @ 9:45 pm

    They're confusing "in no uncertain terms" with "under [or 'in', in BrE?] no circumstances", clearly – I wonder if there's some phono- (-tactic? -logical?) reason for that?

    [(myl) This is an excellent point. If someone recognizes "in no uncertain terms" as containing negation and connoting emphasis, without analyzing it in any further detail, then the phonological resonance with "in no circumstances" might well add to the factors that create a meaning shift.]

  2. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    January 24, 2011 @ 10:00 pm

    Before reading Melissa's comment, my hypothesis was that these speakers were parsing "in no uncertain terms" to mean something roughly like "under no imaginable conditions". I hadn't thought about the similarity in sound between "certain" and "circumstance".

  3. Will said,

    January 24, 2011 @ 10:40 pm

    The monkey brains hypothesis definitely seems to fit here. "In no uncertain terms" has a lot of negation and it's definitely a phrase that seems to carry force, so when an aggressive negative stance is called for, I could see why this phrase might pop up.

    [(myl) This is well put. Note that Melissa's idea of a resonance with "in no circumstances" might simultaneously be true.]

    Also, I like to process it this way: In no uncertain terms do I condone this action. I condone it only with very precise language.

  4. Ian Preston said,

    January 24, 2011 @ 11:03 pm

    That form of words is used five years earlier (though it is not obvious to me how idiomatically) in a sermon delivered on Oct 3, 1858, by the Rev James Lupton to the Royal London Militia assembled at St Paul's Cathedral:

    On this head, I trust that you will feel that I have spoken in no uncertain terms, I have given no " uncertain sound," and, I trust, therefore, that when you depart from this muster, you will go with a resolution to do your duty.

    The reference is to 1 Corinthians 14:8: "For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?"

    [(myl) Interesting. A development from scripture might help explain how an old-fashioned and somewhat opaque idiom caught on, despite its apparently rather late start in the middle of the 19th century.]

  5. Rubrick said,

    January 24, 2011 @ 11:07 pm

    My first thought was exactly the same as Melissa's. I suspect the "no", "sur", and "fixed expression" perceptrons are getting tickled together.

    Supporting evidence: "Under no uncertain terms" gets a healthy 588,000 ghits. Some of these fill the "original" role of in no uncertain terms:

    Well we didn't and he told us under no uncertain terms that when I said I would order some in the near future, he said to remember that I had to bring in some cash or a check.

    Some the "novel" (or putative "under no circumstances") role:

    Under no uncertain terms is white underwear ever a wise choice under white clothing…

    And some I'm not quite sure:

    I was told under no uncertain terms NOT to adjust any time like that…

  6. John said,

    January 24, 2011 @ 11:33 pm

    A few of these sound like a lot of student papers, trying to sound fancy and sophisticated with phrases they don't quite understand and weird word order, like in subject-auxiliary inversions.

    [(myl) It's true that this particular meaning shift involves using a somewhat highfalutin phrase without analyzing how it means what (you think) it does; and this is also something that often happens when students or others start trying to write in a formal style without much practice. But all or nearly all of the cited examples are from web forums, weblogs and the like. As for subject-aux inversion, the general phenomenon remains pretty robust (due to the use in questions), and even the use with initial negative adverbials is not at all out of the ordinary, e.g. in phrases built with "never have I" or "no sooner had he" or etc.]

  7. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 25, 2011 @ 12:55 am

    Are we antedating? Here's one from 1856.

    "This must be borne in mind, in order that the critic may be acquitted, on the one hand, of undue severity, and, on the other hand, may get credit for the sagacity with which he predicts, in no uncertain terms, the advent of a genuine poet, who only required to be true to his own genius to secure the highest honours of his vocation."

    It's from an introduction, I think by James Frederick Ferrier, to a reprint of an essay on the young Tennyson by John Wilson.

    I too am liking the "circumstances" theory.

  8. J Lee said,

    January 25, 2011 @ 2:51 am

    I wonder how many non-native speakers gave up on this post after being ambushed with no context by the sentence "I used to go through tables for a living from the top ropes."

    [(myl) A native-speaker command of English won't really help here, unless you recognize that the speaker is talking about his former career as a professional wrestler.]

    I think the above posters nailed it too.

    If we could compile examples of phonologically-conditioned malapropisms like 'for all intensive purposes,' including the age of the person who (completely unselfconsciously) committed to writing expressions they had obviously never read, I would be interested to see just how closely it tracked the spread of TV/video games. I'm also interested in peoples' opinions of the propriety of using these specimens as shibboleths of sorts. Is there a LL post on this "would of" phenomenon?

  9. Ian Preston said,

    January 25, 2011 @ 7:28 am

    I used Google Books to look for examples published before 1850 and it shows a lot of them but closer inspection shows that they are typically wrongly dated. On the page I just linked to, for example, the first five items are a 1918 issue of the International Steam Engineer dated as 1818, an issue of The Theosophist evidently wrongly dated to 1606, a history of the town of Lyndeburgh from 1735-1905, dated as 1837, 1898-1900 issues of The Memphis Lancet dated as 1808 and an issue of Aviation Cases(!) dated as 1822. Is this the same corpus and the same dating that is used for the n-gram viewer because, if so, it doesn't encourage confidence with regard to counts of rarely used phrases for that time period?

    [(myl) The date part of Google Books metadata has improved a lot recently, so that instead of being wrong more often than not, it's merely sometimes wrong. But the consequence of "sometimes wrong", unfortunately, is that when you use it to look into the origins of words and phrases, it's often the case that most of the early hits are mistakenly dated.

    The sub-corpus used in the n-gram viewer was independently pruned and fussed over for a couple of years in order to try to deal with dating problems, and as a result, its dating seems to be decent, and is probably still better than the dating in the overall Google Books corpus, which as I understand it has developed independently for several years. Some dates in the n-gram corpus are still no doubt wrong, and so you probably can't believe every early blip in low-frequency words and phrases. But as far as I can tell, the large-scale trends are reliable. Unfortunately, they're reliable indications of frequency in a mix of sources that is not controlled or documented, and certainly is not constant over time in terms of genre and so on. (Obvously it would be hard to find an adequate number of 18th-century detective stories, anyhow...)]

  10. GeorgeW said,

    January 25, 2011 @ 9:58 am

    I would like to suggest a process that leads, at least in some instances, to misnegation. This is based on my intuition that additional negation is a higher register: ‘I don’t dislike X’ would be more sophisticated than ‘I like X.’

    1. The monkey brain of the speaker, in attempting a higher register, gets tangled up. And, the more negative elements, the more likely an error will occur (like "don't misunderestimate me").

    2. The monkey brain of the listener cannot immediately parse the statement (and, most listeners are not interested in performing a linguistic or logic analysis). So, the listener utilizes context and presumed speaker intent to determine what the speaker meant.

    3. If the misnegation is said by a prominent person, the phrase can become an idiom and understood on that basis.

  11. Boris said,

    January 25, 2011 @ 10:10 am

    When I first heard the expression (used in its original sense) years ago I heard "in null and certain terms". It sort of made sense except that I'm not sure what null would mean there. I guess it's a personal eggcorn since I can't find this formulation anywhere on the web.

  12. DC said,

    January 25, 2011 @ 11:22 am

    Litotes!

    [(myl) Yes, the original meaning of "in no uncertain terms" involves the rhetorical device of litotes, in which an idea is expressed by denying its opposite. Did you just mean to make us aware that you know this word, or do you have an idea about how litotes is otherwise relevant to the current discussion?]

  13. John Lawler said,

    January 25, 2011 @ 12:25 pm

    Notice, btw, that it isn't just the double negation of in no uncertain terms that makes the inversion and attendant sentence negation odd. While in no uncertain terms is certainly an emphatic affirmative and therefore not appropriate for normal inversion and negation, it's also not the right kind of adverb.
    To get that effect, you normally need a negative adverb of time, place, or circumstance:
      At no time have I…
      Nowhere did he…
      Under no circumstances may you…
    But adverbs of manner don't negate sentences or allow inversion:
      *For no reason did he…
      *Without any assistance will I…
      *In no particular way did she…
    These facts provide more evidence that it's being confused with Under no circumstances, as Melissa Fox suggests above.
    More details at http://www.umich.edu/~jlawler/anyquestions.pdf, which is about the same vintage as Mark's paper.

  14. Eric S said,

    January 25, 2011 @ 12:39 pm

    myl wrote:

    In contrast, when people mean a clause-initial instance of this phrase in the conventional, old-fashioned way, they don't invert

    Is that from a spot-check of just a few examples, or did you have some clever search technique that teases out the semantic intent of the writer?

    Seems like it'd take a lot of effort to prove that 'in no way' ONLY occurs with inversion.

    It'd be interesting to see if there's e.g. a 1% occurrence of 'in no way' and see if those same speakers further subdivide the syntactic or semantic space into regions where 'emphatically' is also possible.

  15. Richard Hershberger said,

    January 25, 2011 @ 1:16 pm

    "Are we antedating? Here's one from 1856."

    Ooh! Ooh! Ooh! Mister Kotter! I can beat that!

    From the Emancipator and Republican (Boston) of Febrary 2, 1849 (via genealogybank.com), reporting on the Massachusetts Whigs contemplating nominating General Taylor:

    "Their district Conventions spoke in no uncertain terms on the subject. The country press, and the city press with but few exceptions, spoke frankly and sincerely against the betrayal of principle which such a nomination involved."

    [(myl) Wow.]

  16. Jerry "Boom Boom" Friedman said,

    January 25, 2011 @ 5:06 pm

    @Richard "Horshack" Hershberger:

    I can't top that. However, it might be interesting that "in no ambiguous/equivocal/obscure terms" goes farther back, so maybe "no uncertain terms" is a variant. The oldest I found was "in no ambiguous terms" from 1701 in The Harmony of the Evangelists… by John (or Jean) Le Clerc.

    And to save any other GooBoo searchers trouble, I did look for "vncertayne", etc.

  17. Doug said,

    January 25, 2011 @ 6:52 pm

    @ Eric S

    "Seems like it'd take a lot of effort to prove that 'in no way' ONLY occurs with inversion.

    It'd be interesting to see if there's e.g. a 1% occurrence of 'in no way' and see if those same speakers further subdivide the syntactic or semantic space into regions where 'emphatically' is also possible."

    I did a quick Google search for "In no way I", to see if I'd find any cases where someone would have been expected to invert "In no way am/do/did I" but instead wrote "In no way I am/do/did/whatever"

    Some of the hits were spurious, with various punctuation marks intervening, but some look like genuine non-inversion in contexts where inversion is obligatory for me:
    *
    In no way I am a Taurus! No! I'm a Gemini . . .

    In no way I am justifying that what "Muslims did" in India like forced conversions,etc. as you allege

    But in no way I am able to see it in iTunes.

    And in no way I am trying to imply that no one will help you. We are happy to help you.
    *

    So some people really do say (or at least type) such sentences.

    I leave further investigation to those more skilled in such matters.

  18. Nijma said,

    January 25, 2011 @ 6:58 pm

    Misnegation, misnegation…

    What an odd word. I keep wanting to read it as "miscegenation". Oddly enough, if I ask Google to do a search for misnegation, it does a search for miscegenation instead.

  19. GeorgeW said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 8:12 am

    @Nijma: Yes, me too.

  20. Chandra said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 2:57 pm

    More proof: "Under no uncertain circumstances" gets 8700 ghits, including gems such as:

    We have absolutely, explicitly stated that under no uncertain circumstances will Canada ever be taking back spent nuclear fuel at any time from any country.

    Under no uncertain circumstances can the banker decide to lift the bank secrecy.

    Talk about a new phrase for the politician's rhetorical toolbox!

  21. Rod Johnson said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 9:34 pm

    Googling for "uncircumstances" turns up "extremely private information that was never supposed to be told to the public under any uncircumstances" and "due to unforeseen uncircumstances" and "under uncircumstances will I forgive him" and a few other odds and ends. The web is a weird place, lingually.

  22. Steve Kass said,

    February 1, 2011 @ 7:13 pm

    Following Chandra’s example, I googled “under no certain circumstances.” Many of the 35,800 ghits refer to the same recent Michelle Bachman quote. The quote has received attention aplenty, though not for the misturn of phrase that brings me to reproduce it here.

    That’s why people need to continue to go to the town halls, continue to melt the phone lines of their liberal members of Congress and let them know, under no certain circumstances will I give the government control over my body and my health care decisions.

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