Once again on the Newt negation watch… In last night's Republican debate in Iowa, Gingrich defended his previous support of an individual mandate for health care insurance. He explained that he held this stance back in 1993, when he was combating so-called "Hillarycare":
I frankly was floundering, trying to find a way to make sure that people who could afford it were paying their hospital bills, while still leaving an out for libertarians to not buy insurance. (video)
From a linguistic standpoint, there wasn't anything too remarkable about this statement, though it's a nice example of a well-split infinitive ("to not buy insurance" is far more preferable here than "not to buy insurance"). It also provides an example of Gingrich's Southern-style stress shift, putting the word stress on the first syllable of insurance ("INsurance" rather than "inSURance") — just as he said "NOMinee" rather than "nomiNEE" in the clip we looked at earlier this month. (More on this initial-stress pattern in Mark Liberman's post, "Thanksgiving variation.")
But in today's Associated Press debate analysis by Charles Babington, Gingrich's quote got changed a bit:
I frankly was floundering, trying to find a way to make sure that people who could afford it were paying their hospital bills, while still leaving an out so libertarians could not buy insurance.
This mistranscription adds an extra layer of ambiguity to Gingrich's statement. It could be read as equivalent to what Gingrich actually said: he was looking for an out [OED: "a means of escape or avoidance; a way out"] that would make it possible for libertarians to not buy insurance. But this version could also be construed to mean that the out would make it impossible for libertarians to buy insurance.
Laurence R. Horn covered this type of ambiguity in "Some Aspects of Negation" (1978), giving the example, "A good Christian can not attend church (and still be saved)," which has both "not possible" and "possible not" readings. Changing can not to cannot, or contracting it to can't, forces the "not possible" interpretation. Horn observes,
The same distinction holds between could not and couldn't, although no orthographic convention permits *couldnot to disambiguate the uncontracted form as cannot does.
In speech, we usually rely on prosody to disambiguate the "not possible" and "possible not" interpretations: "so libertarians could NOT buy insurance" matches Gingrich's original "for libertarians to NOT buy insurance," while "COULD not buy insurance" would be the stress pattern associated with the "not possible" reading.
All of this ambiguity could have been avoided, of course, if the AP had correctly transcribed what was actually said. I'm sure Newt would have a thing or two to say about the reliability of mass-media political coverage.