It's hard to deny he doesn't

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So Pete Wells (who is the NYT's restaurant critic) wrote an epically bad review of Guy Fieri's American Kitchen & Bar in Times Square (sample line: "Somewhere within the yawning, three-level interior of Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar, is there a long refrigerated tunnel that servers have to pass through to make sure that the French fries, already limp and oil-sogged, are also served cold?").

And Guy Fieri, who has a regular show on the Food Network ("Guy's Big Bite"), struck back with an interview on the Today Show (""I just thought it was ridiculous," Fieri, 44, said Thursday. "I've read reviews. There's good and there's bad in the restaurant business. But that, to me, went so overboard. It really seemed like there was another agenda.")

So does Pete Wells indeed have another agenda?

Amos Barshad, "The Culture Wars: Guy Fieri vs. the New York Times",  Grantland 11/15/2012 (emphasis added):

Lowbrow vs. highbrow, authenticity vs. cultural appropriation, the virtues of coastal elitism: Surprisingly, this Guy Fieri kerfuffle became a bit more of a nuanced conversation than you'd first expect. Like, when the satisfied patron in the Today show clip (the big fan of the Awesome Pretzel Chicken Tenders) calls Wells "another pompous New Yorker," well, you could probably sit around parsing that one out for a while. And so it's worthwhile going back to Wells's original review and asking yourself: Does he have an agenda? I'd say it's hard to deny he doesn't — as many have pointed out, there's a reason Wells reviewed Guy Fieri's place and not, say, the Times Square outpost of Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. And that reason is that Fieri stands for something, and so reviewing his restaurant is a way at getting at Fieri as a symbol.

Another one for the misnegation files.

Phrases of the general form "it's hard to deny (that) he doesn't __", like phrases of the general form "this is not to say that I don't think that it isn't ___", are a sort of highbrow form of negative concord — more often than not, the negations reinforce rather than cancelling. Some web examples:

I’ve never actually been a hard and fast fan, but it’s hard to deny he didn’t play a big part in the sounds of my youth.
It's hard to deny he didn't suck all of the beauty and passion out of everything he touched.
Love her or hate her, it's hard to deny she doesn't look great here.
I can see how some people wouldn't like her voice so I don't discredit their opinions but I just think it's hard to deny she doesn't have supreme talent!
as much as I’d love to see him on the big screen, it’s hard to deny he doesn’t belong in music after hearing some of his works.
Filatov doesn't have the experience but it's hard to deny he won't be a top 6 forward at some point.
With a performance like this, it's hard to deny he isn't the MVP.
Even if you don't necessarily approve of Goddard's big twist, it's hard to deny he isn't perfectly suited for Buffy's quirky world of vampires and slayers.
We were fortunate to get into the changing rooms at half time with the score at 1-1, but it's hard to deny that we didn't deserve the spanking that West Brom eventually handed us.

There is just so much stuff that connects. It's kind of hard to deny that something isn't going on behind the scenes.
It is hard to deny that there isn't strong talent this year.
It's hard to deny that the film isn't well made, and it's overall pretty fun and exciting.
Even though the melodies still remain as a focal point for RAGE, it's hard to deny that this isn't their most aggressive album to date.
While many of us hate the look of TouchWiz, it's hard to deny that Samsung isn't trying to pack it full of industry leading features.
It would be hard to deny that he didn't score some superb goals at an amazing rate last season.
However, it's hard to deny that Baidu didn't have a strong quarter when pre-tax profits still rose by a sharp 56%.

There are also a few examples where the negations each play their individual semantic role:

it's hard to deny that the system isn't working.
Love her or hate her, it's hard to deny that Barbie isn't just a doll; she is a cultural icon.
We're 6 months down the line and all I hear this day is how swtor is dying and it's hard to deny that swtor isn't in good condition right now.

And in some cases, I pretty much just give up and go with the contextually plausible meaning:

It's really hard to deny the power of the drop-shot, but it's not hard to deny that rigging them isn't exactly as quick and easy as tying on a crankbait.

[Tip of the hat to JPS]

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18 Comments »

  1. Pflaumbaum said,

    November 16, 2012 @ 9:54 am

    I was going to ask about negative concord the last time this came up. If we accept, with CGEL, that certain types of negative concord are grammatical, e.g.

    (1) Not in my car you don't

    (2) I shouldn't be surprised if it didn't rain

    - then there does seem to be an argument for classifying the kinds of misnegation myl mentions as such. They seem to be quite common in copy-edited prose (at least going by how often they crop up on LL). And while they may be much less common than versions with ordinary negation, the same is surely true of (2).

    So how do descriptivists like the CGEL authors decide when a usage is common / elite / uncontested enough to be classified as standard English?

  2. MattF said,

    November 16, 2012 @ 10:15 am

    Honestly, it's plausible that Wells, as the brand-new Times restaurant critic, wants to establish his credentials as a badass. One may say that Wells evidently has the means and the motive, and then Mr. Fieri went and offered him the opportunity.

    [(myl) Also, who could resist? But this is Language Log, not Psychology of Food Journalism Log.]

  3. jeff gerhard said,

    November 16, 2012 @ 11:54 am

    Also, the first sentence of that Grantland article describes Fieri as having a "gauche personal aesthetic and an unabiding devotion to anything fried repeatedly" where presumably he means "an abiding devotion."

  4. Lazar said,

    November 16, 2012 @ 12:07 pm

    @jeff gerhard: Perhaps that's a mashup of "abiding" and "unbridled".

  5. Vance Koven said,

    November 16, 2012 @ 12:13 pm

    Stephen Fry's novel The Liar contains a hilarious set-piece in which a Cambridge don delivers an oration in which every statement consists of compound negatives (not just "nots" but every variety of negative verb). One has to count them to determine whether a positive or negative implication was intended.

  6. KWillets said,

    November 16, 2012 @ 1:54 pm

    It's difficult to see when not is not.

  7. Sili said,

    November 16, 2012 @ 4:50 pm

    Stephen Fry's novel The Liar contains a hilarious set-piece in which a Cambridge don delivers an oration in which every statement consists of compound negatives

    It's been too long since I read it. Can you give a page number?

  8. Daniel Barkalow said,

    November 16, 2012 @ 4:59 pm

    I feel like "it's hard to deny that he doesn't" is intended to be "it's hard to make a denial which says that he doesn't" rather than "it's hard to deny the statement that he doesn't". I think that "deny" requires rejecting a prior claim, and this fact eliminates the double-negative reading in this case, since nobody's tried to make the case that he has no agenda. With that out of the picture, it's tempting to use "deny" as a matter of speaking verb ("say X while denying").

  9. Rod Johnson said,

    November 16, 2012 @ 6:17 pm

    Today I asked someone "when did you start not opening before noon?" and this person claimed, multiple times, to be unable to understand what I was saying. Eventually I had to say "You used to open before noon; you don't any more. When did that happen?" I thought she was puling my leg at first, but apparently not. She finally told me I "should have" said "When did you stop opening in the morning?" and that not opening is not something one can start, which made me suspect peevery rather than whimsy or obtuseness, but… is there some interaction of aspect (or Aktionsart or whatever) and negation that causes that sentence to be problematic?

  10. Gou Tongzhi said,

    November 16, 2012 @ 9:51 pm

    Rod J, I side with the shop-keeper on this one. I would have understood you but thought you very odd for putting it that way and suspected you were the one pulling some sort of elaborate joke, if only to amuse yourself.

  11. Dan M. said,

    November 17, 2012 @ 12:38 am

    Lest Rod J conclude that he's alone in thinking his phrasing was reasonable, I find it completely unexceptional and have said similar things myself. It seems obviously compositional; "start [not [opening [before noon]]]". Maybe the problem is bracketing it as "[start [not opening]] [before noon]" and considering "not opening" to be something you can't start at any time.

  12. ShadowFox said,

    November 17, 2012 @ 8:22 am

    There have been all sorts of descriptors for the review, including "knee-capping". The review is indeed distinct from all others and there has been a furious exchange between critics and Fieri's supporters. MattF refers to Wells above as "Times new restaurant critic". This does not even begin to describe the situation. First, Wells is not that new–he's been around a few months. He's had a series of unusual reviews, including, for instance, the one for Mission Chinese Food. Chow.com commentator John Birdsall says a lot more on the subject (he's also the source of the above-mentioned "kneecapping" reference):

    It’s not often that a restaurant review becomes a pop culture artifact, but Pete Wells’s takedown in The New York Times of Guy Fieri’s new place in Times Square has done just that. Wells wrote his review of Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar entirely as questions. It’s a one-sided Socratic debate, which as it builds, absolutely razes Fieri's brand.

    But other Wells reviews … have demonstrated a yearning to break free of convention. With his Fieri column as a statement of principle, Wells may have just liberated a new generation of American food critics from earnestly writing about the napery.

  13. Jon Weinberg said,

    November 17, 2012 @ 2:31 pm

    @MattF, ShadowFox: Indeed, Wells is not that new. He took the Times's restaurant-critic job a year ago, and before that had written a food column for the Times for two years, edited its Dining Section for five years, and won five James Beard awards for food writing.

  14. Audrey W. said,

    November 19, 2012 @ 12:39 pm

    One of my co-workers asked if there was a term for an article (or speech) consisting entirely of questions. Is there?

  15. Chandra said,

    November 19, 2012 @ 1:33 pm

    @Audrey W. – I can't see anything listed in Wikipedia's glossary fo rhetoric terms (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glossary_of_rhetoric_terms), but I feel like there is such a term… or there should be.

  16. Mark Mandel said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 12:26 am

    Pflaumbaum@November 16, 2012 @ 9:54 am:
    certain types of negative concord are grammatical, e.g.
    (1) Not in my car you don't
    (2) I shouldn't be surprised if it didn't rain
    .

    I've never thought of the construction in (1) as negative concord, but rather as two clauses in, so to speak, partial apposition:
    (Passenger takes out a cigarette and a lighter. Driver reaches over and grabs the cigarette.) "Not in my car you don't!"
    "Not in my car" and "You don't" both express the negative imperative.

    With (2), I'm not clear on the intended meaning. Is this supposed to be "I expect that it will rain" or "I expect that it won't rain"/"I don't expect that it will rain"? I would analyze it as the former. But since you say it is like (1), showing negative concord, it sounds as if you understand it as the latter. To which I can only say that this is an idiom with which I am not familiar.

  17. ajay said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 5:27 am

    One of my co-workers asked if there was a term for an article (or speech) consisting entirely of questions. Is there?

    "Talmudic"?

  18. Audrey W. said,

    November 29, 2012 @ 4:16 pm

    @Chandra and @ajay,

    Thanks for your responses! I haven't quite found the term I'm looking for, but I'll either keep looking or coin one.

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