Archive for Misnegation


Lately I've been seeing greater use of this kind of sentence structure:  "He is an awesome hero — not".  And (mis)negation has always been a favorite topic for discussion on Language Log.  Consequently, I'm calling to your attention two recent publications on "not".

"'Not' in the Brain and Behavior." Cas W. Coopmans, Anna Mai, Andrea E. Martin, PLOS Biology 22, no. 5 (May 31, 2024): e3002656.

Negation is key for cognition but has no physical basis, raising questions about its neural origins. A new study in PLOS Biology on the negation of scalar adjectives shows that negation acts in part by altering the response to the adjective it negates.

Language fundamentally abstracts from what is observable in the environment, and it does so often in ways that are difficult to see without careful analysis. Consider a child annoying their sibling by holding their finger very close to the sibling’s arm. If asked what they were doing, the child would likely say, “I’m not touching them.” Here, the distinction between the physical environment and the abstraction of negation is thrown into relief. Although “not touching” is consistent with the situation, “not touching” is not literally what one observes because an absence is definitionally something that is not there. The sibling’s annoyance speaks to the actual situation: A finger is very close to their arm. This kind of scenario illustrates how natural language negation is truly a product of the human brain, abstracting away from physical conditions in the world.

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Foundation misnegation

From Antonio Fortin:

I’m re-reading Asimov's Foundation novels after nearly 35 years and I came across this example in Book 1, which just seems like a mess:

“I don’t say, though,” added Barr, “that there aren’t cases where tech-men haven’t been bribed.”

Obviously, the intended message is that there are cases where tech-men have been bribed, but I’m struggling to arrive at that meaning from the sentence. Shouldn't “haven’t” be “have”? Maybe Language Log readers could help.

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"…harder said than done"?

Scalar inversion of the week — Jon Christian, "Elon Musk fans horrified when his Grok AI immediately 'goes woke'", Futurism 12/9/2023:

The woke mind virus appears to be coming from inside the house.

Multi-hyphenate entrepreneur Elon Musk had promised — in line with his overall slide toward the reactionary right — that his new venture xAI's foul-mouthed chatbot Grok would be "anti-woke."

The only problem? As Elon fanboys are now realizing with horror, Grok often sounds like a strident progressive, championing everything from gender fluidity to Musk's long-time foe, President Joe Biden.


We've seen this play out over and over for every tech company that's dabbled in the tech, from OpenAI to Microsoft to Alphabet to Amazon to Meta.

But it's particularly striking for Musk, whose primary approach to AI so far has been to criticize how others are doing it. He's trashed his former compatriots at OpenAI, for instance, for what he says amounts to muzzling ChatGPT against telling what he would style as harsh political truths.

What the SpaceX and Tesla CEO appears to now be learning in real time is that crafting an AI in your ideological image is harder said than done.    [emphasis added]

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Three negations in one headline

From François-Michel Lang, "I had to read the article to be sure I understood what exactly had happened!"
The Kentucky measure bans access to gender-transition care for young people, and West Virginia’s governor signed a similar bill on Wednesday. Passage of bans also appears imminent in Idaho and Missouri.
By Campbell Robertson and Ernesto Londoño, NYT (March 29, 2023)


Here follow the first five out of seventeen paragraphs in the article:

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kempt and sheveled

From François Lang:

I did not know you'd invented "topolect" and "character amnesia"!
Now…since you have a predilection for naming heretofore unnamed things, I am wondering if you could work your linguistic magic to describe words like "unkempt" and "disheveled", which appear far more often than their equivalent without the negative prefix.

I hope that pushes some linguistic buttons (assuming, of course, that no such word actually exists!).

The best I've come up with is "arhizomorphic", but I'm sure you and your Language Log groupies can do better!

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No depth-charge channel is too noisy to be confused by

Yuhan Zhang, Rachel Ryskin & Edward Gibson, "A noisy-channel approach to depth-charge illusions." Cognition, March 2023:

The “depth-charge” sentence, No head injury is too trivial to be ignored, is often interpreted as “no matter how trivial head injuries are, we should not ignore them” while the literal meaning is the opposite – “we should ignore them”. Four decades of research have failed to resolve the source of this entrenched semantic illusion. Here we adopt the noisy-channel framework for language comprehension to provide a potential explanation. We hypothesize that depth-charge sentences result from inferences whereby comprehenders derive the interpretation by weighing the plausibility of possible readings of the depth-charge sentences against the likelihood of plausible sentences being produced with errors. In four experiments, we find that (1) the more plausible the intended meaning of the depth-charge sentence is, the more likely the sentence is to be misinterpreted; and (2) the higher the likelihood of our hypothesized noise operations, the more likely depth-charge sentences are to be misinterpreted. These results suggest that misinterpretation is affected by both world knowledge and the distance between the depth-charge sentence and a plausible alternative, which is consistent with the noisy-channel framework.

Yuhan Zhang discusses the paper in a thread on Twitter.

Speaking of depth, I'm definitely out of mine when it comes to noisy-channel frameworks. But it isn't the case that I'm not so ignorant as to fail to recognize that this paper is not too unimportant for Language Log not to pay no attention to it.

(Hey, ChatGPT — betcha can't make sense out of that!)

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Lots of nots

Ron Irving sent in this sentence from Will Bunch's latest Philadelphia Inquirer column ("Proud Boys’ only ‘idea’ is violence. Penn State is wrong to give its leader a platform", 10/13/2022):

What’s more, it’s hard not to think that McInnes and his allies didn’t choose both their location — State College, on a campus surrounded by the counties that went so heavily for Trump in the last two elections — and the timing (15 days ahead of two of the nation’s most-watched midterm elections) with the idea not of winning converts through their “humor,” but with the hope of fomenting even more violence.

Ron's comment: "So Will is saying 'it’s easy to think that McInnes didn’t choose the location and timing with the hope of fomenting even more violence'? One too many negations, I’d say."

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Triplex negatio ferblondiat

Julian Hook sent in this quote and link, from "Chris Christie mocks ‘disaster’ Donald Trump at upstate biz conference", NY Post 9/23/2022:

“There is a sector of our party, which cannot find themselves genetically unable to not defend Donald Trump,” Christie said at another point in his hour-long address while criticizing fellow Republicans for backing the ex-president’s evidence-free claims of mass voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election.

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Another misnegation/miscomparison

From Breffni O'Rourke,  another example of the conceptual tangle created by the interaction of scalar comparison and (implicit) negation:

Just another one of these. There's no outright negation, but it seems related – the implied negative of "only" interacting with the scalar comparison "more slowly". The arithmetic comes out with the wrong sign in any case:

"The Tories came back into power in 2010. Over the course of this unbroken period of rule, typical household incomes in Britain have risen more slowly than those in only two other western European countries: Greece and Cyprus."

He means either "…risen more slowly than those in all but two other…" or "risen faster than those in only two other…".

The quotation is from Fintan O'Toole, "Liz Truss will make Johnson seem a political genius, May a mistress of empathy, Cameron a beacon of sincerity", The Irish Times 9/5/2022.

And as usual, it's really hard for our poor monkey brains to process cases like this — I agree with Breffni about this one, but no doubt some commenters will not.

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Negative ambiguity

This sounds like it should be a technical term in one discipline or another.  I did a Google search for "negative ambiguity" and received 42,800 hits, a negligible number of them false because of punctuation issues.  They occur in contexts that fall under psychology, economics, sociology, language and linguistics (grammar, syntax, scope, attachment, translation, etc.), sexuality, business and administration (leadership), investment, finance, tourism, education, biology, military science, politics, race studies (identity), etc.

One of the most prolific sources for the use of "negative ambiguity" is in this low key but still extraordinary paper by WANG Bo1, XIE Junwei1, ZHANG Jing2, and SUN Bosen3   in Journal of Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics ›› 2020, Vol. 46 ›› Issue (1): 122-132. doi: 10.13700/, "Negative ambiguity function characteristics simulation of FDA", where it occurs frequently. 

1. Air and Missile Defense College, Air Force Engineering University, Xi'an 710051, China
2. Shaanxi College of Communication Technology, Xi'an 710018, China
3. School of Information, Xi'an University of Finance and Economics, Xi'an 710100, China

    • Received: 2019-03-27 Published:2020-01-21
    • Supported

      National Natural Science Foundation of China (61503408)

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Double positives, part 2

The following tweet is from four years ago, but it's still relevant today.  Moreover, in reading through the replies to this tweet, I see interesting references to African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and remarkable resonances to Russian, including Vladimir Putin's "meddling".

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Impossible to underestimate tha crazy?

From Will Bunch, "In wagering on Doug Mastriano, Josh Shapiro plays a dangerous game for Pa.", Philadelphia Inquirer 5/8/2022:

The Democrats should have learned their lesson in 2016. In this millennium, it’s impossible to underestimate the power of “tha crazy” coming out of a Republican Party base in which not only a majority of voters now believe 2020′s Big Lie that the last election was somehow stolen from Trump, but in which an alarming number are waiting for John F. Kennedy Jr. — last seen when he died in a 1999 plane crash — to expose a baby-eating cabal of Democratic pols and Hollywood stars and maybe arrest Anthony Fauci for treason.

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In reading texts from the earliest times of Chinese writing up to the present, and at all social levels and linguistic registers, I have noticed a curious phenomenon.  Namely, often an overtly negative particle or term will have no privative or prohibitive force, but is simply there for rhythmic, clitic, or rhetorical function.

Naturally, since negation is normally marked and unmistakable in its purpose, when its unaffirmative function is lost / absent / missing, interpreting the intended meaning of such a statement or utterance can be challenging.

I was prompted to contemplate this curious phenomenon when I was writing a message to my brother in Chinese, and realized that "guǎn tā 管它" and "béng guǎn tā 甭管它" mean the same thing: — "forget about it; leave it alone; don't worry about it"! — with or without the negative word being overtly present.

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