"No one is too busy not to look at this"

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Jane Perlez and Eric Schmitt, "Pakistan's spies tied to slaying of a journalist", NYT 7/4/2011:

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Obama administration officials believe that Pakistan’s powerful spy agency ordered the killing of a Pakistani journalist who had written scathing reports about the infiltration of militants in the country’s military, according to American officials. [...]

The disclosure of the intelligence was made in answer to questions about the possibility of its existence, and was reluctantly confirmed by the two officials. “There is a lot of high-level concern about the murder; no one is too busy not to look at this,” said one.

This is a lovely example of the classic pattern first described by Peter Wason and Shuli Reich, "A Verbal Illusion", The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 31(4):591-97, 1979.

For a discussion of the Wason/Reich account of these cases, see "No detail too small", 11/27/2009, and "No wug is too dax to be zonged", 11/28/2009. They began with the real-world example "No head injury is too trivial to be ignored". As they observed, it is often remarkably difficult to determine whether examples of this general kind have the correct combination of negations and scalar directions. Some web examples of the "no one is too * (not) to *" variety:

His ideas in this practical book can help us learn to slow down and be with God. No one is too busy not to pray after all.

No one is too busy to cook, and anyone can cook.

As Bishop Pilla began to speak, we were privileged to hear the heart of God. He suggested we come together as a community — as ambassadors of hope — and build a new city, whose hallmarks would be peace and justice. Said Pilla: “No one is too poor not to contribute. No one is too rich not to benefit.”

This parable teaches us that no one is too poor to help others and that true charity is rooted in love and compassion.

I think no one is too stupid to not to be able to find the ingredient.

No one is too stupid to make money in the stock market.

No one is too unimportant not to play a vital role in Cymru's fight for freedom and independence.

And Benedictine hospitality says no-one is too unimportant to be part of the community. 'Let the Guest be treated as Christ,' the Rule says.

No one is too old not to have fun at Circus Circus.

Our DJ will provide fantastic music choices and even think about playing games for adults – no one is too old to have fun!

Coaches are role models and no one is too old not to learn.

We believe that learning is a life-long process and that no one is too old to learn and benefit from research based interventions.

In "Multiplex Negatio Ferblondiat", 7/14/2007, I observed that there are four non-exclusive classes of explanations for such things:

1) People get confused about multiple negatives and/or scalar predicates, etc.
2) The connection between English and modal logic may involve some unexpected ambiguities;
3) Negative concord is alive and well in English (or in UG);
4) Odd things become idioms or at least verbal habits ("could care less"; "fail to miss"; "still unpacked").

A much longer list of relevant posts can be found here.

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7 Comments »

  1. grackle said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 10:33 am

    Most of these examples could be explained by the almost parallel intensifiers "so" and "too" which if exchanged muddy the meaning: No one is so busy versus no one is too busy, yet 'it is so something-or-other' and 'it is too something-or-other' work differently.

  2. Andrew Dowd said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 12:57 pm

    A good test for 1) or 2) would be if people had the same difficulty in other downward-entailing contexts. Like, "is anyone too stupid not to notice this?"

    That actually doesn't sound too bad.

  3. Tony said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 5:49 pm

    "To not to" might be my favorite bit from the examples above.

  4. Chad Nilep said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 10:39 pm

    This reminds me a bit of Biber and Finegan's work on written versus spoken English. As I recall, very roughly, written sentences tend to be both longer and more syntactically complex than spoken utterances. Biber suggested that this complexity may be due at least in part to the time it takes to write.

    It seems that English, and perhaps most human languages, contain structures that can be produced (or at least, are more likely to appear) only with slightly more time and presumably more effort than is usual in casual speech.

    Of course, the example above was quoted in a newspaper, suggesting that the writer and the editor – who presumably spent some deal of time on the article – either did not spot this as an error or decided not to correct it.

  5. Felix said,

    July 6, 2011 @ 11:55 am

    Not sure where to post this comment but I just found a passage I thought you might be interested in. I'm not sure if it's a typo or an intentional construction. The quote:

    In a dramatic prime minister's question time dominated by the hacking scandal, Miliband also accused Cameron of being out of touch with public opinion on the issue of BSkyB and of a "failure of leadership" in the biggest press scandal in modern times.

    Is "prime minister's question time" a noun? As a USian, I am totally confused by this paragraph… Perhaps some commas would help me?

  6. Robert Furber said,

    July 6, 2011 @ 7:42 pm

    You are right, prime minster's question time is a noun. See:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prime_minister%27s_questions

  7. d said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 11:02 am

    Always a great comment on double negatives, taken from an Economist reader to the editor:

    During my many years as a reader of your newspaper, I have distilled two lessons about the use of our language. Firstly, it is usually easier to write a double negative than it is to interpret it. Secondly, unless the description of an event which is considered to be not without consequence includes a double or higher-order negative, then it cannot be disproven that the writer has neglected to eliminate other interpretations of the event which are not satisfactory in light of other possibly not unrelated events which might not have occurred at all.

    See
    http://www.economist.com/research/styleGuide/index.cfm?page=673933

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