Misnegation of the month

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From Lauri Karttunen (via Arnold Zwicky):

I have come to realize that there are a lot of examples on the web of the type "not want to not X" that seem to say the opposite of what they mean. Here are a few:

She failed to give the patient CPR and turned an ambulance away in the mistaken belief that the elderly woman’s had said she did not want not to be resuscitated. (Cambridge, UK, newspaper article)

If a guest does not want not to be disturbed they need only to place the 'Do Not Disturb" sign on the door and their wishes will be respected. (Florida motel)

In the first case, the mistaken belief was that the elderly woman did not want to be resuscitated. In the second case it should say "If a guest does not want to be disturbed …"

I first thought that these were isolated errors but there are so many of them that they cannot not all be errors. You find this phenomenon with "wish," "desire," and even "expect:"

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If the girl remained unkissed, she could not expect not to marry the following year.

Do you know if something has been written about this phenomenon? It doesn't look like negative concord.

As Arnold observed in response, this appears to be a new type of misnegation, of the overnegation variety, not previously catalogued. And Larry Horn noted

I can only add that one feature that often leads to (or at least accompanies) hypernegation, including the cases illustrating what I call "Triplex negatio confundit" and "Quadruplex negatio far'blondiat" (in my old 1991 CLS paper on "logical" double negation), is the lexical incorporation of (at least) one of the extra negatives.  That property is present in some of the examples below ("She failed to give the patient CPR and turned an ambulance away in the mistaken belief that…"; "Nor will we waste your time…", "If the girl remained unkissed,…", and arguably also "they need only…"), so that may be a factor even when the incorporated negatives are in a different clause.  In the third example, perhaps the "If not p then not q" form may have thrown a monkey wrench into the mix; I wonder if the hypernegation would have arisen had the consequent been simply "please leave immediately".  In the remaining example, there's a "nor" anticipated in the later clause.  I'm not claiming there's an inevitable relation between the processing of some negations (which is known to put a strain on both production and comprehension, back to work by P. C. Wason, Herb Clark, and others) and the difficulty of keeping track of others, but there does seem to be a correlation.

Larry's 1991 CLS paper is discussed here — or you can read his 2009 BLS paper here.

Update — There has been some discussion in the comments about whether these examples are instances of editing errors, perhaps facilitated by interaction with word processing programs. FWIW, we can certainly find cases of this kind that were written well before the era of computerized word processing, such as this passage from the address of Walker D. Hines to the National Lumber Manufacturers Association, published in Lumber World Review, April 23, 1919:

Broadly speaking, the policy of the Railroad Administration is that the advisors on each railroad will continue to make their purchases just as they did before the war and on the same general basis with, however, some limitations to prevent the exercise of undue pressure for a considerably lower price. The Railroad Administration could get no ultimate advantage by prusing such a short-sighted policy. It has no such desire nor has it a desire to bring about prices for itself which are below the prices of of other purchases of commodities in substantial volume. It does not want not to be the beneficiary of special treartment which will result in putting a burden on the rest of the public.



  1. Eric P Smith said,

    May 9, 2012 @ 10:46 am

    Examples like these strain to the limit my earnest desire to think like a modern descriptive linguist. Against that earnest desire, every other thought in my mind screams at me that the writers are stupid or extremely careless or both, and that the increasing incidence of such examples is another nail in the coffin of the English language.

    Can someone please, gently, explain to me why I should not think like that? Or is it all right for me to think like that in private, while behaving in public like a modern descriptive linguist?

  2. Craig said,

    May 9, 2012 @ 11:13 am

    Je ne sais pas why you shouldn't think about a phenomenon in written English that seems to have some momentum whether you do not want not to accept it. Perhaps because you feel to educated or sure that you're style of English is the best so you have every right to snobbery. Especially when you can easily ascertain the meaning of the sentence, so obviously those irregularities stick out like sore thumbs to everyone who knows these things. The meaning of a sentence would be much better communicated if we took the time to shame and prescribe usage to everyone who uses our language, especially in cases like this where meaning is obvious.

  3. Mr Fnortner said,

    May 9, 2012 @ 11:56 am

    @Eric P Smith, a workable compromise would be to maintain your standards in your own communications while continuing to believe that other writers are stupid or extremely careless (or both). Take heart in the fact that English, especially, is unlikely to be nailed into a coffin by anyone's usage.

  4. John Lawler said,

    May 9, 2012 @ 12:12 pm

    Getting exercised over somebody's use of a changing syntactic phenomenon is exactly the same as getting exercised over somebody's spelling, or handwriting, or voice quality, or appearance, or ethnic group, or race, or sex, or politics, or religion, or life style.

    These can happen, and they can be a significant source of irritation, and even emotion. But they are entirely a matter of personal taste.

    If you think there is a more objective judgement possible, feel free to make it. ut be sure you've got the facts and arguments for it lined up before you state it. That's what it means to "behave like a modern descriptive linguist"; though I'm not sure whether this counts as "thinking like" one.

  5. Mona Williams said,

    May 9, 2012 @ 1:32 pm

    I often see mistakes like this that, while not negations, do seem to follow a similar pattern. That is, a kind of changing-horses-in-midstream situation where the writer begins to say something one way, then thinks of a better way, writes that, and forgets, in his excitement about this new and better wording, to go back and change the old one. Most of the examples given fit this pattern in that "not" can be placed after the verb as well as before, with few or no other changes to the sentence. I think placing the "not" after the verb may sometimes strike the writer as preferable because it seems (maybe just to me) a liitle more formal.

  6. Joe said,

    May 9, 2012 @ 2:21 pm

    At first I too thought these may have been isolated errors. What made me change my mind was that interesting point was about the lexical incorporation of a negative. The only example from COCA I could find was from the NYT, and it does fit that pattern:

    I do not want to not scold American audiences for failing to buy tickets to subtitled movies.

  7. David said,

    May 9, 2012 @ 2:56 pm

    Did the incidence of this increase with the rise of word processing? It reads to me like an error while editing the passage.

    [(myl) There are certainly some common patterns that reflect errors in entering text (whether by quill pen or computer keyboard), or in editing text (whether on paper or using a computer program). There are other patterns that reflect conceptual confusion ("... the importance of this contribution cannot be underestimated"). The question at issue here is whether these extra copies of not are slips of the pen (or mouse), or slips of the brain, or rather a symptom of a different grammar of negation.

    My own guess would be that they're slips of the brain -- multiplex negatio feblondiat, and all that. But the other hypotheses (composition/editing errors, or signs of grammatical change in progress) might also be true. And perhaps different instances have a different mix of causes.]

  8. Lauri Karttunen said,

    May 9, 2012 @ 3:00 pm

    Even the French have been infected by this grammar bug. A headline in the English version of the May 8, 2012 edition of Le Parisien proclaims awkwardly:
    Jean-Marie Le Pen does not want not to be candidate
    with the legislative ones
    The original headline in French says
    Jean-Marie Le Pen n'a "pas l'envie" d'être candidat
    aux législatives
    Bad machine translation?

  9. David L said,

    May 9, 2012 @ 3:36 pm

    myl was kind enough the other day to point that I am not a very clear reader or thinker, so it seems appropriate for me to weigh in here by saying that I had to read the examples several times to see the problem.

    [(myl) I was very careful to particularize it to the occasion, and to describe the activity rather than the actor. You wrote "I'm also not convinced there's much of a difference between [2] and [4]," and I responded that "I'm not convinced that you're reading or thinking very clearly here". I have every reason to believe that you're a first-rate reader and thinker, in general and potentially always; but I think your fingers got ahead of your brain in that particular case — something that happens to all of us from time to time.]

    I scanned them quickly, grasped immediately what they were trying to say, and had to read them carefully a couple more times to spot the extra 'not.' Which leads me to think one could easily make these kinds of mistakes as a writer as well as a reader. They're 'thinkos,' in other words. It's nice to imagine that facile keyboarding, as opposed to scratching out one's words with a quill, would make it easier to commit such errors, but one would have to google a lot of papyruses to find out.

  10. David L said,

    May 9, 2012 @ 3:37 pm

    Great, and now myl responded to the post above just as I commented. It's like we're long lost twins or something.

  11. Janelle said,

    May 9, 2012 @ 4:01 pm

    I find nots to be tricky sometimes–I have never used one when it was needed, but I have often used one when it was needed. (Okay, bad joke, but it is true if you fill in what I left out!) For some reason, it is very easy, to my detriment, for me to omit very necessary negation in sentences when typing or writing. I imagine my problem could go the other way, as in the case outlined in this blog, so I withhold judgment.

  12. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 9, 2012 @ 4:16 pm

    It has been pointed out here multiple times (I think gkp had a particularly comprehensive statement of the point once) that native speakers can and do in fact make errors, e.g. garble syntax in ways that upon proofreading or sober reflection under ideal conditions of attentiveness they would themselves recognize as errors and edit out. Descriptivism does not mean anything you see out there is simply a non-standard or innovative usage that only snobs will look askance upon because it might, in fact, be an error. The question is how to determine when that's the case, especially since on the web one can't dig up and interview the original writers and see what they think (plus of course there are risks that such post hoc inquiries themselves may taint the native-speaker's intuition by signalling what the expected/"correct" answer is). It's also hard to know how many instances of such a pattern are necessary for the "error" hypothesis to be abandoned. I take it, for example, that "teh" for "the" was in fact quite common in hastily-typed internet texts but still an error until it became an ironic thing of its own. Here, it may be difficult to tell either in a given instance or in general whether a particular usage is an "error" in this sense or just non-standard. But am I correct in thinking that the pejorativeness implied in "misnegation" is still generally intended to convey a working hypothesis that the phenomena being described are in fact errors in this sense, rather than idiomatic expressions in an emerging variety of English with different grammatical rules relating to negation?

  13. LDavidH said,

    May 9, 2012 @ 4:17 pm

    Does this "double negation" appear in spoken English as well, or is it purely a written phenomenon?

  14. David Eddyshaw said,

    May 9, 2012 @ 4:46 pm

    After all, strange intrusive negatives can't just be slagged off as intrinsically barbaric and illogical: in the most Academic and stodgiest register of French you still say

    je crains qu'il *ne* vienne

    for "I'm afraid that he *may* come."

    On the other hand this is the sort of thing which has led generations of schoolchildren to wonder if the French aren't just doing it on purpose to be awkward.

  15. Bloix said,

    May 9, 2012 @ 5:23 pm

    In response to Eric P Smith – describing something that exists is not the same as approving its exisence. A linguist can note and explain this usage, and you can hate it. The two are not the least bit mutually exclusive.

  16. Nick Z said,

    May 9, 2012 @ 5:25 pm

    @ David Eddyshaw. And unsurprisingly in Latin too you would say timeo *ne* ueniat 'I am afraid that (s)he will come (or 'is coming')'. The story as I understand it is that this was originally paratactic: 'I am afraid. Let him/her not come' –> 'I am afraid that (s)he will come'. I don't suppose one could explain the English examples in a similar way.

  17. David Eddyshaw said,

    May 9, 2012 @ 5:53 pm

    I think the Latin is a bit less mindscrewy, inasmuch as you can simply think of 'ne' as meaning 'lest' in this construction, whereas in the French there's already a perfectly good 'que' introducing the subordinate clause.

    Mind you, in modern French, 'ne' by itself can hardly be said to convey negation anyway, I suppose, despite its origin, which I guess makes its appearance in non-negative contexts much less peculiar.

    Une chose plus commune qu'on ne pense. Maybe.

  18. Rebecca said,

    May 9, 2012 @ 6:56 pm

    My gut feeling on reading the examples is that they are performance errors, which got me wondering why that was my gut feeling. Or rather, when does a lot of examples from (presumably) different sources mean a construction is intentional, and when is it just a common kind of performance error? How much is statistics, and how much depends on other linguistic factors?

    For my gut instinct, I think the fact that these are negation errors plays into the fact that it feels like true errors. Even the explanatory text above is not immune: somewhere in the chain between Karttunen>Zwicky>myl and whatever software in between, we get "I first thought that these were isolated errors but there are so many of them that they cannot not all be errors" –

    That's one "not" too many, isn't it, or am I turned around?

  19. GeorgeW said,

    May 9, 2012 @ 7:42 pm

    I am often guilty of under-revision. I write something and then revise it. In the revision, I don't always delete all the elements I intended to replace. So, I could easily end up with over negation. I suspect that some of these could be similar situations.

  20. Ruben Polo-Sherk said,

    May 9, 2012 @ 8:01 pm

    I agree with Rebecca.

    Negative concord in English exists in

    I didn't do nothing

    but not

    *I didn't want to not do it.

    The reason it works in the first, but not the second lies in the fact that the the syntax of what [not] is freer in terms of what it modifies than that of [no], where in a sense it is a prefix.

    Since in negative concord the two morphemes that look negative are not, in fact, negative independently (it is only together that a negative meaning is imparted), morphemes that are syntactically independent (like [not]) cannot be used in negative concord generally. (The [not] in the [didn't] in the example above is not, actually, independent–it's bound to [didn't] and also to [didn't want].) If you pretend that negative concord is a transformation from non-negative concord, it is 'harder' to change the grammar involving the independent elements.

    I am not familiar with negative concord languages outside of French and Spanish (and of course some dialects of English), so I looked at the Wikipedia page for it (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double_negative), which includes some examples from a few different languages. I realize this is very incomplete, but it does seem that in general the only situations in which negative concord is used is with bound morphemes.

    If anyone knows of any exceptions, please correct me! My reasoning here isn't strictly rigorous.

  21. Ann Burlingham said,

    May 9, 2012 @ 8:08 pm

    Certain to be completely useless information, I will vaguely assert that I feel I've heard such things in speech. I'll try to catch one and note it next time one flies by.

  22. Michael Briggs said,

    May 9, 2012 @ 8:30 pm

    An old-time Wisconsin string band called the Goose Island Ramblers put new words to a Norwegian waltz tune, and called the resulting song "There's No Norwegians in Dickeyville" (the band members were largely of Norwegian descent). The chorus ends: "There never was and there never will be no Norwegians in Dickeyville." http://www.folkways.si.edu/TrackDetails.aspx?itemid=41891

  23. Carl Offner said,

    May 9, 2012 @ 8:51 pm

    @Michael Briggs: Yes, but to me anyway that last "no Norwegians" has the sense of "any Norwegians". No?

  24. Michael Briggs said,

    May 9, 2012 @ 9:08 pm

    @Carl Offner: Sure. The only way I could improve on this would be restate it as "There ain't never gonna be no Norwegians."

  25. Lauri Karttunen said,

    May 10, 2012 @ 12:34 am

    I find it very interesting that none of the first 17 commentators picked up the (intentional) error in my original message to Arnold Zwicky: "there are so many of them that they cannot not all be errors." The kudos for noticing that go to Rebecca. One hypothesis is that we are so accustomed to a pleonastic "not" with neg-raising verbs (?) that we don't see/hear them at all without being prompted to pay close attention.

  26. Lauri Karttunen said,

    May 10, 2012 @ 12:41 am

    Should have written "kudos … goes" instead of "kudos … go" although the incorrect agreement has twice as many hits on Google than the correct one.

  27. Joe said,

    May 10, 2012 @ 1:09 am

    @Lauri Karttunen,

    The intentional error you gave is an interesting one, but it isn't really syntactically similar to the "not want to not INF" construction, is it? I would think that something like "not want not to be disturbed" would be example of clausal (not want) combined with subclausal (not to be disturbed) negation. Something like "they cannot not all be errors" would be an example of fused-head partitive (not all) functioning as a quantificational adjunct — that is, it quantifies the subject, (i.e,, not all of them).

  28. Lauri Karttunen said,

    May 10, 2012 @ 2:50 am

    If you are strictly logical, "they cannot not all be errors" is equivalent to "they must all be errors" because not[possible[not p]] is equivalent to must[p] in standard modal logic. Here p = they are all errors. That conclusion is at odds with what the message was about, so no one seems to have noticed that except for Rebecca, including Arnold and Mark.

  29. Mathieu said,

    May 10, 2012 @ 2:50 am

    @Lauri Karttunen,

    Machine translation was bad

    Jean-Marie Le Pen n'a "pas l'envie" d'être candidat
    must be translated by
    Jean-Marie Le Pen does not want to be candidate

  30. uebergeek said,

    May 10, 2012 @ 2:54 am

    Curious Non-Linguist Wonders:

    Has there also been an increase in people writing this way intentionally? I often seem to find myself stumbling over sentences like, "He would not want not to be included." It strikes me as a form of euphemism, like substituting the word "issue" for "problem" in a polite email. "'He would not want to be excluded' – oops, too blunt – ^H^H^H….."

    I also wonder if the unfortunate elderly woman in Cambridge may have actually said that she did not want not to be resuscitated. Since the term DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) is used to identify people's wishes on the matter, could she have said or meant that she did *not* want to be a DNR?

  31. Joe said,

    May 10, 2012 @ 3:17 am


    I think this might come down to the scope of the "not" (i'm not really disagreeing with you: i just originally thought your intentional error was different from the others). Now I see that for you, the bare infinitival clause falls under the scope of negation, so the sentence becomes something like, "All of them cannot not be errors." I originally thought that only "all" fell under the scope of negation, so the sentence becomes something like, "Not all of them cannot be errors." I'm not thinking very clearly right now, so I'm not sure if my original understanding is even possible, and, if so, whether it makes your intentionally incorrect example significantly different from the others (although I think the combination of a fused-head quantificational adjunct and a bare infinitival clause might make it so.

  32. Alan Gunn said,

    May 10, 2012 @ 7:12 am

    I think uebergeek nailed it. The question is whether (many?) people write this way on purpose. You can't answer this question by looking at the writings alone, at least until they become a lot more common than they are today. The letter quoted in the original post says that there are too many of these occurrences for all of them to be errors. This is puzzling. Surely there can be errors that many people make. When we start seeing these in edited prose or hearing them daily, it will certainly have become something other than an error. Is there some sort of understand about how to decide whether a new usage has gone beyond being just a mistake?

  33. Steve Kass said,

    May 10, 2012 @ 11:07 am


    For what it's worth, I picked up and blockquoted your "cannot not" error in a comment yesterday morning, but my comment never appeared. I tried reposting the comment and got a "duplicate comment" message, so I assume it went to some comment queue, where it may still be… Alas.

  34. Ted said,

    May 10, 2012 @ 2:23 pm

    Adding nothing to the enlightened and enlightening commentary above, but highlighting the ubiquity of the phenomenon Karttunen describes, here's an example plucked from today's headlines: the concluding sentence of Alex MacGillis's blog post today in the New Republic (http://www.tnr.com/blog/the-stump/103269/portrait-the-candidate-young-jerk):
    But it's hard not to see how this portrait does not add to our understanding of Willard Mitt Romney, Cranbrook Class of 1965.

  35. Mike Koplow said,

    May 10, 2012 @ 2:26 pm

    As (God help me, God help us all) a manuscript editor, these look to me like drafting and/or editorial errors. I'll often want to improve [chortle] a sentence, and I make half of the intended improvement–adding without deleting, or deleting without adding. And I can sometimes tell when an author has done the same when composing the work.

    Meanwhile, I take comfort from the words of Kris Kristofferson: "I said I won't be leaving no more quicker than I can/'Cause I've enjoyed about as much of this as I can stand/And I don't need this town of yours more than I never needed nothing else."

  36. Zubon said,

    May 10, 2012 @ 6:50 pm


    I recall hearing that construction most often to suggest a focus on avoiding a negative rather than suggesting a positive. He would not actually go, but he would not like not to be invited. "I don't disagree…"

    But mostly it reminded me of Bartleby, the Scrivener: "I do not speak it in vanity, but simply record the fact, that I was not unemployed in my profession by the late John Jacob Astor;"

  37. me said,

    May 11, 2012 @ 1:29 pm

    it took me a couple tries of rereading it to find the miss-negations. My mind kept editing them out so I only got the *clearly* intended meaning. If my brain rejects them as errors so strongly that it doesn't even bother to notify me, then I think it is unlikely that there is a community that uses this construction habitually and with intention. The reason is because if everyone assumes it's a production mistake then it will take them longer to realize their friends are using it on purpose (and then adopt it).

  38. Jon Weinberg said,

    May 11, 2012 @ 4:34 pm

    I'm grading exams, and just read the phrase "it is unlikely the Court would not uphold the Right-to-Carry Act". Reading it in context, I have absolutely no idea which meaning the student intended.

  39. me said,

    May 12, 2012 @ 5:47 pm

    Out of context it seems to say that the court is in favor of "right-to-carry". It would be fun to see the context so I could be properly confused.

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