"No less X"

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Joe Nocera, "A Revolutionary Idea", NYT 2/24/2012:

Puritans fled to America in the 1600s because they were being persecuted in England for their hard-edged, Calvinist beliefs, and their rejection of the Anglican Church. Having one’s ears cut off for having deviationist religious beliefs was one of the lesser punishments Puritans suffered; being locked up in the Tower of London, where death was a near certainty, was not uncommon.

Yet Winthrop and the other Puritans did not arrive on the shores of Massachusetts hungering for religious freedom. Rather, Winthrop’s “city on a hill” was meant to be, in Barry’s words, “an authoritative and theocentric state,” no less tolerant of any deviation of Puritan theology than England had been toward the Puritans.

There's a lovely example of misnegation in that last sentence, though the problem in this case is strictly speaking more a matter of implication than of truth.

Were the Puritans less tolerant than the Anglicans they fled from? Maybe not; Nocera seems to think that the two groups were approximately equal (and both very low) in tolerance for the religious outlook of others.

But literally, to say that "A is no less X than B" means that the degree to which A is X is equal to or greater than the degree to which B is X. More succinctly, X(A) >= X(B). It may help to look an example like this one from the Washington Post in 2009:

… personal relationships are no less important than overhead rates in determining who gets the business.

This clearly means that the importance of personal relationships is greater than or equal to the importance of overhead rates. And it also implies that personal relationships are thereby more important than you might have expected them to be.

Or consider this quotation from the manager of a Black Sea resort, cited in the Christian Science Monitor in 1995:

… our natural surroundings are no less beautiful than the Bahamas, and in the Bahamas you can not sleep where [Stalin] used to live.

This asserts that the beauty of Yalta is at least as great as the beauty of the Bahamas. And again, it implies that the Black Sea's beauty is greater than we might stereotypically have expected.

So when Mr. Nocera's asserts that John Winthrop's Boston was "no less tolerant" than the England he fled, he's telling us  that Boston's tolerance was greater than or equal to England's tolerance. Since Nocera believes that the two degrees of tolerance were about the same, this is not strictly false. But it also implies that Boston's tolerance was greater than we might have thought, which is the wrong direction for Nocera's argument.

I believe that what he wrote was undernegated, missing a needed negative element:

… Winthrop’s “city on a hill” was meant to be [...] “an authoritative and theocentric state,” no less intolerant of any deviation of Puritan theology than England had been toward the Puritans.

Or maybe the problem was scalar inversion, to be fixed by changing less to more:

… Winthrop’s “city on a hill” was meant to be [...] “an authoritative and theocentric state,” no more tolerant of any deviation of Puritan theology than England had been toward the Puritans.

In either case, it's a common sort of error. The combination of negation and scalar comparison pushes our poor monkey brains beyond the skills that evolution has prepared us for. (Or, if you're a student in danger of losing your faith commitment, perhaps we should say that original sin has marred the intelligent design of our semantic interpretation component.)

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13 Comments »

  1. mike said,

    February 25, 2012 @ 4:07 pm

    Any relation to "I could care less"?

  2. John Lawler said,

    February 25, 2012 @ 5:21 pm

    @mike: No, not really.

    "I could care less" is just Negation by Association, whereas "less tolerant of any deviation … than England" is a full-fledged Misnegation.

  3. Eric P Smith said,

    February 25, 2012 @ 6:58 pm

    Indeed our brains have a limited capacity for nesting negatives. But I wouldn’t blame that capacity for the frequency of misnegation in English. The capacity is more than we need. The trouble is that in English there is a tendency to nest negatives two levels deeper than is necessary to express the intended meaning. "A is no less X than B" means (to a sufficient approximation) the same as "A is as X as B". Mr Nocera said "no less tolerant than"; he meant "no less intolerant than"; and he could simply have said "as intolerant as".

    The trouble is not our monkey brains. The trouble is that we abuse our monkey brains.

  4. boynamedsue said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 5:50 am

    It also shows our brains' ability to elicit meaning from context even when it is clearly the opposite of that which was actually stated. I read and correctly understood that sentence 3 times before I realised what the mistake was.

  5. Dave said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 7:39 am

    Or the New York Times could get better dam' proof-readers!

  6. Paul M. Postal said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 8:19 am

    Here's a nice misnegation from today's Guardian:

    "The consensus figure is that you need $100m. At that level, even the seriously rich agree that you are rich. Anyone with that amount of money is obviously way, way past the point where they will never have to think about any of their material needs, ever again."

    Clearly, it should be 'ever have to think'.

  7. W. Kiernan said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 10:12 am

    Paul M. Postal: No, I think that quote makes sense as-is. When you're a regular person with an ordinary income you worry about having enough money all the time, and if you acquire $100K or $1M you still could spend yourself broke pretty promptly, but at or above a certain point on the income scale you can cease to worry about covering your necessities forever; $100M is past that point.

    At least that's what the Guardian says, but Donald Trump, for one example, shot well past that point a couple of times and managed to go broke afterwards anyway, and though he's not the reflective type, during those slumps he might have worried about his personal fortunes.

    And R. A. Lafferty in "Slow Tuesday Night":

    …The panhandler was Basil Bagelbaker, who would be the richest man in the world within an hour and a half. He would make and lose four fortunes within eight hours, and these not the little fortunes that ordinary men acquire, but titanic things…

    "…Could you let me have two dollars, Ildy?"

    "Out of the question… Why do you need two dollars?"

    "A dollar for a bed and a dollar for red-eye. After all, I sent you two million out of my second."

    "I keep my two sorts of accounts separate. Here's a dollar, Basil. Now be off! I can't be seen talking to a dirty panhandler."

    "Thank you, Ildy. I'll get the red-eye and sleep in an alley. Preserve us this morning."

  8. Eric P Smith said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 10:14 am

    @Paul M. Postal: No. “Never have to think” is correct. I think you’re reading “past the point” as a negative-polarity trigger, which it isn’t here, and you’re doing an undernegation of the “will the market in sharks’ fins end before there’s any sharks left” kind. See http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=953.

  9. Rube said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 4:08 pm

    @ W. Kiernan. — indeed, I recall reading a magazine piece where Trump was recalling one of those times. He and Marla Maples had just encountered a guy selling pencils in the street. Trump remembered thinking something along the lines of "At this moment, that guy is worth 90 million dollars more than I am."

  10. Anomaly UK said,

    February 28, 2012 @ 9:25 am

    After "the Tower of London, where death was a near certainty", any other delusions the writer might have been under are irrelevant.

    Seriously, what makes people want to display their ignorance so spectacularly?

  11. Paul Kay said,

    March 2, 2012 @ 6:25 pm

    @W. Kiernan. At first I thought your comment was, well, er … whacko, but now I see I was wrong. When I first read the sentence, I thought that Postal was simply right, that never was just a mistake for ever. But now I see two contending interpretations. Imagine a point p of wealth that is great, but still not so great that one doesn't have to worry about necessities. Now imagine a slightly higher point of wealth p+1, at which a person no longer has to worry about necessities. Since these two points are close to each other, if $100m is well beyond one it's well beyond the other. W. Keirnan take the "point" exceeded by $100m to be p+1. Postal (and I) hear this "point" to refer to p. It's a mystery to me why readers like Postal and me (and, I trust, others) favor the p interpretation even though it forces ungrammaticality, given that the p+1 interpretation accords with the grammar — especially since we have expressions like "beyond the point of no return" and "beyond the point of diminishing returns", which require a (p+1)-type interpretation. (I'd welcome personal email if anyone has an explanation for this.)

  12. David Fried said,

    March 3, 2012 @ 10:35 pm

    Anomaly UK,

    Right! Nor did Puritans have their ears cut off merely for deviationist religious beliefs . . .

  13. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words said,

    March 9, 2012 @ 10:17 am

    [...] and some meh occurrences over the years. At Language Log, Mark Liberman explored the phrase, no less X, and Geoff Pullum told us the difference between passive and passive-aggressive, and about [...]

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