Everything cannot not be unbelievable, either

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Connoisseurs of misnegation will not be surprised by cases where an author who uses three or four negatives in one proposition finishes up with one too many. Thus Jessica McGregor Johnson, Remembering Perfection – Everyday Inspiration for Living Your Spirituality, 2008:

It is also true that we are afraid of our emotions. Part of us believes that if we allow our sad emotions free reign then maybe we will never stop crying. I have news for you — no-one has never not been able to stop crying.

Ricardo Piglia, "Artificial Respiration", translated by Daniel Balderston:

The facts and evidence were so clear that it seems impossible that nobody has never noticed.

"Sussex or Sussex-Devons?", The Farmer's Magazine, Jan. 1870

I do not say for one moment that no one has not for the sake of an experiment crossed Sussex with Devon ; but that the improvement in the Sussex stock of late years is in consequence of crossing with the Devon, or any other breed, I entirely deny.

But it's surprising how often a simple pair of negatives comes out wrong in a similar way. Thus John O'Donohue, "A Second Birth", Third Way, March 2008:

But Meister Eckhart said: 'There is a place in the soul that neither time nor flesh nor any created thing can touch'. A place inside you that no one has never got to, or hurt, or damaged — a place where there is peace, serenity, courage and healing.

Megan Hutching, "After Action: Oral History and War", in The Oxford Handbook of Oral History, 2010:

Some stories are never told, perhaps because no one has never asked or because the events are too traumatic.

Richard Morris, The Evolutionists, 2002:

For example, no one has never seen a cross between a hippopotamus and a giraffe, and no one ever will.

Roy Hughes, Building a Bidding System, 2005

Admittedly, this is a bit like saying no one has never been hurt falling, only landing.

Rajneesh Osho, Zen: The Art of Meditation, 2004:

That's why Buddha never talks about God-because to talk about God is wrong, is to falsify, is to belie, is to betray. lt is something that nobody has never seen.

Adolf Heschl, The intelligent genome, 2002:

This is expressed by the fact that no-one has not yet succeeded in producing a man-made living system in the laboratory.

Patterns like "no one has never" are fairly common, and the proportion of instances in published works that turn out to be over-negated adds to the plausibility of the "negative concord is (semi-) alive and well" theory of why misnegation happens.

And then, in its own category, there's Kenneth King, Writing in motion: body–language–technology, 2003:

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25 Comments »

  1. Patrick Neylan said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 9:25 am

    Reading these sentences is like doing algebra in your head, but the last one's got to be a parody, surely.

  2. Peter Howard said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 9:56 am

    "My imagination cannot not be in my head." Fair enough, but did not Descartes get there before King?

  3. Toma said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 10:38 am

    To be, or not never to be…?

  4. KevinM said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 10:49 am

    Perhaps we should give a pass to "Zen: The Art of Meditation." It could have been a koan.

  5. Robert Coren said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 10:50 am

    I was distracted in the first quotation by the use of "free reign", a peeve of mine so thoroughly domesticated that I don't even need to keep it on a leash, never mind a rein.

    {(myl) No longer unbrided, then, is it? If you want to wallow, click here or here.]

  6. Ben Miller said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 11:44 am

    @KevinM, yes, in defense of Rajneesh Osho, Buddha might well have agreed that God is "something that nobody has never seen," and Osho might have intended to say exactly that: everyone has seen God! Though a more aptly pantheistic expression might have been, "nothing that nobody has never seen."

  7. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 12:05 pm

    @Peter Howard: I think King's point may be that everyone has gotten there (or somewhere) first. I'm not betting on it, though.

    @KevinM and Ben Miller: If you look at the rest of the passage from Osho, which gets into serious paradoxes, the sentence quoted does look overnegated. I might sum it up by saying, "Only nobody has seen God," but does my analysis have Buddha-nature?

    I always suspect that sentences like these are from negative-concord speakers or people who have made editing errors, but who knows?

  8. KevinM said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 12:10 pm

    @Jerry: Following the logic of these multiple negations requires at least an eight-fold path.

  9. Nathan said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 1:07 pm

    Most of them strike me as little more than typos: never for ever.

    [(myl) They are almost certainly errors of some kind -- we can be fairly sure that few if any of these passages were written by authors and checked by editors whose native variety of English exhibits negative concord. But the proportion of apparent swaps of "never" for "ever" is enormously greater in instances of (say) the pattern "no one has (n)ever", than it is in instances of the pattern "(s)he has (n)ever", or for that matter in "(s)he hasn't (n)never". So it's not just a simple context-independent slip of the fingers.]

  10. Jeff said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 1:21 pm

    @Jerry: I couldn't fail to disagree with you less.

  11. Brian Throckmorton said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 3:20 pm

    In "Hello, Dolly!" Horace Vandergelder (the well-known half-a-millionaire) intentionally piles on the negatives for rhetorical effect: "A living, Mr. Kemper, is made by selling something that everybody needs at least once a year. And a million is made by producing something everybody needs every day. You artists, you painters, produce nothing that nobody needs never."

  12. Michael Warhol said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 3:55 pm

    The best multiply-negative sentence in my experience (not really a misnegation as in the above examples) was spoken by (I assume from context) a salesman complaining to a colleague: "I ain't never had nobody not buy nothin' before!" Completely and immediately comprehensible, which I suppose is one difference between misnegation and multiple negation.

  13. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 5:16 pm

    I see that the blurb for King's book asserts: "Dense with movement, these writings explode and reconfigure the familiar, crack syntax open, and invent startling new words." I'm not sure which of those phenomena the quoted passage is supposed to be evincing (I'm not even sure I know what understanding of syntax is required to make a cracking-it-open metaphor coherent), but we should perhaps expect no less from "one of America's most inventive postmodern choreographers."

  14. Shyam said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 5:49 pm

    George Orwell on the not -un formation "banal statements are given the appearance of profundity by means of the not -un formation". It is possible to cure oneself of this habit by memorizing the following sentence "I once saw an unblack cat chase an unsmall rabbit across an ungreen field."

  15. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 9:04 pm

    There are some wonderful examples of double negation in the "printed xercise" cited in the preceding post:

    • No one hasn't yet succeeded in separating the element radium by itself…
    • …and of this not only a few ounces is believed to be in existence…
    • ….place it in a room that no human being or animal couldn't remain in that room and live…
    • …no one hasn't discovered it yet.

    [(myl) That's how I stumbled on this exercise in the first place -- I was looking at instances of various kinds of double negation in a Google Books search, and after noting this one down, I realized that in addition to various stylistic flaws, the passage was written in a negative-concord variety of English. That seemed (and seems) really odd to me, in context.]

  16. Army1987 said,

    August 11, 2011 @ 5:03 am

    I think some of those might be by people who have negative concord in their vernacular dialect and momentarily forget that Standard English doesn't. In a colloquial conversation, such constructions wouldn't be weirder than I can't get no satisfaction (as opposed to …any satisfaction).

  17. Theo Vosse said,

    August 11, 2011 @ 10:34 am

    Curious phenomenon in Spanish: double negations are quite common, as far as I know. You have to say No dijo nada. It means I haven't said a thing, but literally translates to: I-haven't-said nothing. No dijo algo (I-haven't-said something) is wrong. It is also used as accentuation: nunca jámas, both words meaning never, means something like never ever (which is also quite odd, when you think about it).

    [(myl) Not just Spanish: see e.g. H. de Swart and I. Sag, "Negation and Negative Concord in Romance", 2002. Or see A. Giannakidou, "N-words and Negative Concord", 2002, which observes that

    NC is observed in many languages; e.g. Romance, Slavic, Greek, Hungarian, Nonstandard English, West Flemish, Afrikaans, Lithuanian, Japanese (see among others Labov 1972, Ladusaw 1992, 1994, van der Wouden and Zwarts 1993; Bosque 1980, Laka 1990, Herburger 2001 for Spanish, Zanuttini 1991, Longobardi 1991, Acquaviva 1993, 1995, 1997 and Tovena 1996 for Italian, Quer 1993, 1994, Vallduvi 1994 for Catalan, Puskás 1998, Tóth 1999, Suranyi 2002 for Hungarian, Giannakidou 1997, 1998, 2000 for Greek, Haegeman 1995 and den Besten 1986 for West Flemish and Afrikaans, Hoeksema 1997 for Middle Dutch, Progovac 1988, 1994 for Serbian/Croatian, Brown 1999 for Russian, Przepiórkowski and Kupc 1997, 1998, Blaszczak 1999, and Richter and Sailer 1998 for Polish; Watanabe to appear for Japanese)

    ]

  18. Emily said,

    August 11, 2011 @ 10:53 am

    I wonder, does this sort of misnegation happen in languages that permit multiple negation even in formal writing? And if so, how does one distinguish between "logical" multiple negation (where the negatives really are intended to cancel) and negative concord? In speech, at least, one can use intonation: "I don't have no money" vs. "I don't have NO money" (I do have some).

  19. Ellen K. said,

    August 11, 2011 @ 1:36 pm

    @Emily: In Spanish (as in English) one can express that idea with the equivalent of "I don't have a lack of money".

  20. Emily said,

    August 11, 2011 @ 2:35 pm

    @Ellen K: I see. "I don't lack money" is certainly unambiguous. It seems that negative concord interpretations for double negatives are unavailable when one negative is "packaged" inside a word such as "lack" rather than "surfacing" as a clear negative word or morpheme.

  21. Mr Punch said,

    August 11, 2011 @ 7:55 pm

    In a number of these examples the problem is indeed "never"; I don't think Nathan is right about "misprints," but Army1987 may be about vernacular usage: "don't never" is not a double negative.

  22. Boris Blagojević said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 9:55 am

    @Emily: I don't think it does, although I might be unaware of it. Multiple negatives in a clause can only mean one thing, so it can't be hard to calculate.
    As for translation, you can of course always remove the litotes, or you can paraphrase, using for example the fact that clause boundary blocks negative concord, so the first sentence in this post would become an equivalent of "not being able to stop crying never happened to anybody" (only not nearly as clumsy).
    And in Croatian at least you can use context and emphasis to override the default interpretation of multiple negatives, but it's quite marginal.

  23. Army1987 said,

    August 13, 2011 @ 12:05 pm

    In Italian, the situation is *very* weird, depending among other things on word order. (My own interpretation is that words such as nessuno mean ‘none, nobody’ when before the verb but ‘any, anybody’ after it, so that in the latter case you also need non to negate.

  24. Paul Kay said,

    August 15, 2011 @ 1:27 pm

    @Shyam. Wouldn't, "I once saw a not unblack cat chase a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field," work better?

  25. Not My Leg said,

    September 6, 2011 @ 6:03 pm

    What about connoisseurs of miscegenation, which is what I read? (Technically I read 'misegenation', which I assumed, incorrectly, was how miscegenation was spelled).

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