Nondisunnegativity

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Jonah Goldberg, "Whither the Toaster?", NRO 9/10/2012:

It’s not like there isn’t a market for such things. I’d wager more Americans own toasters than iPhones. It’s not like heating bread is a realm of human technological knowledge that cannot be further advanced (if such a realm exists). More plainly, it is not as if there aren’t technologies at hand today that wouldn’t improve the toasting experience if thoughtfully incorporated into a new generation of toasting devices. [emphasis added]

Reader AW, who sent this one in, suspects that "if you dissect it, it ends up NOT saying what Jonah wants to say".

And a letter from the Times (of London), contributed by reader TF, who wonders what the last sentence intends to say, and whether it succeeds:

Sir, The tragic death of Jacintha Saldanha is not dignified by the righteous indignation surrounding it (report, Dec 8). The young Australians clearly had no expectation of getting through, were unconvincing and did no real harm to the royal couple. Mrs Saldanha was neither a receptionist nor a security officer but a nurse left to fend for herself in the early hours of the morning. I'm sure I'm not alone in remaining to be persuaded she had not been the object of some criticism for what she did in all good faith.
Bill Collett
Penryn, Cornwall

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14 Comments »

  1. Scott said,

    December 11, 2012 @ 3:53 pm

    I'm not sure I don't agree that it doesn't say what Jonah think it says.

  2. Jonathan Wright said,

    December 11, 2012 @ 3:54 pm

    I usually love dissecting your multiple negatives and finding out that they mean the opposite of what is probably intended. But this last one doesn't seem to make the grade. Bill Collett clearly means, "I am inclined to believe that she had been the object of some criticism. I remain to be persuaded that she had not been the object of some such criticism. I'm sure I am not alone in this." He is referring to the hospital administration's denial of any disciplinary action against the hapless nurse who appears to have killed herself, and the natural assumption that some such criticism may have played a part in her death.

    [(myl) TF's point, I think, is that it takes just that sort of algebraic manipulation to determine what such hierarchically-arranged triple negatives mean...]

  3. Briano said,

    December 11, 2012 @ 4:27 pm

    I love how it's introduced by "more plainly," and I also love how incredibly easy these things are to understand the intended meaning of when read quickly enough. That was a terrible sentence; just read it quickly.

  4. Fiona Hanington said,

    December 11, 2012 @ 5:10 pm

    The Telegraph's Iain Hollingshead would certainly recognize the closing sentiment at the end of Collett's letter (triple-negative or no).
    Why IS it that so many letters to the editor muse, "Am I alone in thinking…?" (Answer: No.)

    "http://www.amazon.co.uk/Am-Alone-Thinking-Unpublished-Telegraph/dp/1845135024"

  5. glitch said,

    December 11, 2012 @ 7:22 pm

    Well, it's true that there are indeed many technologies that, if incorporated into toasters, would not improve them one bit.

    [(myl) My thought exactly.]

  6. Jason said,

    December 11, 2012 @ 10:46 pm

    To be fair to Mr. Goldberg, that article reads very much as the article of a man who woke up this morning and sat down at the breakfast table with a deadline and 500 words to fill. I doubt he bothered to check if the triple negative made any sense before blitting it over to an NRO editor.

  7. Dan M. said,

    December 11, 2012 @ 11:05 pm

    "[B]litting it over to…"?

    Has bulk memory copying (for certain values of bulk; http://www.catb.org/jargon/html/B/blit.html) somehow been generalized to mean digital transfer?

  8. Paul said,

    December 12, 2012 @ 6:16 am

    More British people use the NHS than Americans and neither of our toasters owns an iPhone.

  9. Jason said,

    December 12, 2012 @ 6:47 am

    [i]Has bulk memory copying (for certain values of bulk; http://www.catb.org/jargon/html/B/blit.html) somehow been generalized to mean digital transfer?[/i]

    Sorry. I must have picked it up from a couple of my nerdy friends, but it turns out that isn't a common sense of the word yet. Perhaps if we keep on using it enough?

  10. Nathan Myers said,

    December 12, 2012 @ 7:45 am

    Any time I am obliged to read Jonah Goldberg, I wonder whether he can really be said to mean anything at all.

    Progress in toaster design over the past century has been marked mainly by removing parts, not adding more. Open up a toaster some time and see if you can figure out what makes it buzz when you hold the lever down while the toaster wants it up. There's hardly anything in there! Its design might be beyond the capacity of mere mortals.

  11. Laura said,

    December 12, 2012 @ 8:06 am

    I (not being a techie person) assumed 'blit' was a nonce word and thought it suited the action perfectly (sending something electronically without considering it too much). I vote we commandeer it.

  12. Nathan Myers said,

    December 12, 2012 @ 7:03 pm

    "Blat" is better suited to that usage, and AFAIK otherwise unused.

  13. maidhc said,

    December 13, 2012 @ 12:46 am

    We had a toaster from the 1930s, and it was much better than a modern toaster in just about every way. The only thing it didn't have was an automatic shutoff to stop toasting before the toast gets brown like a modern toaster.

  14. joanne salton said,

    December 13, 2012 @ 7:58 am

    Forgive me if I've missed a discussion on this point, but isn't the conclusion we should draw from these endless examples really that a confused stew of negatives is no more to be fathomed out by logic than "I ain't got none" is to be deduced a positive. Most of these examples are clear in intent, and you have to work quite hard to find out what the supposed problem is. There is, therefore, no problem?

    I suppose you might say it is "formal" English and that this changes things, but other endless examples on Language Log also show that we would be better off regarding Journalistese as at most only semi-formal, for the most part.

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