Archive for negation

Do few of the principals appear seriously undamaged?

"The Guardian view on King Charles: still on probation", The Guardian 12/15/2022:

The latest allegations from Harry and Meghan are damaging for the Windsor family – and perhaps for the monarchy.


Saddest of all, surely, is the sight of so many unhappy people inside such a dysfunctional institution. Few of the principals appear undamaged, often seriously, by the pressures of the roles they play in front of an audience of sometimes infantilised millions.

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*Neither Sentence Nor Sentence?

Today in Seth Cable's seminar on Montague's Universal grammar, he gave out a problem set that included the task of adding "Neither Mitt smokes nor Barack smokes" to the little fragment of English that had been developed. And in the discussion of the problem set, it turned out that I was the only one in the class who seemed to have any doubts about whether the sentence "Neither Mitt smokes nor Barack smokes" was grammatical.
My own intuition was that it had to be "Neither does Mitt smoke nor does Barack smoke", though that sounded a little funny too.

So out of curiosity I just checked in the big Huddleston and Pullum Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. I was afraid the question was too arcane to be covered there; but to my happy surprise they do actually discuss it, on pages 1308-9 in their chapter on coordination.

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"Misunderstand that …", "pessimistic that …"

In late June Lila Gleitman noticed a case of "A is pessimistic that S" meaning that A considers it likely that S will happen/turn out to be the case, and A considers S to be an unwanted outcome. Her example was "I am more pessimistic than I was two weeks ago about the trade war spinning out of control."

We agreed that we would both find it impossible to say "I’m pessimistic that the trade war will spin out of control", but differed on "pessimistic about": in my dialect, but not Lila’s, "A is pessimistic about a Republican victory in the fall" is OK, meaning that A fears that the outcome will be the one she doesn’t want — that there will be or that there won’t be, depending on her point of view.

Lila, by the way, said she could use “pessimistic that” in the case of losing hope in a good outcome: “I am more  pessimistic than I was two weeks ago that the prices of stocks will rise.” But I don't think I could use "pessimistic that" there either. (So the original speaker and Lila and I seem to have three different patterns of judgments about "pessimistic that".)

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Accentuate the negative

A curious case of a forced-choice sentence-completion question on a ninth-grade exam at a high school in Taiwan is briefly discussed on Lingua Franca today, for a very general non-linguist readership. It merits a slightly longer and more serious treatment, which I thought Language Log readers might appreciate. The exam question basically asks for a decision on the question of which one of these sentences is fully correct and which deserves to be called ungrammatical:

(a) Lydia knows few things, and so does Peter.
(b) Lydia knows few things, and neither does Peter.

Because continuation with neither does… is widely taken to be a test for negative polarity, this amounts to asking whether Lydia knows few things is a positive clause like Lydia knows everything or a negative one like Lydia doesn't knows anything. And a friend of mine in Taiwan reports having asked a number of English speakers, with a truly surprising result. He finds a split between the two great English dialect groups, the North American dialects (AmE) and the British and Australasian dialects (BrE). The AmE speakers that he asked all said (a) was correct, while the BrE speakers all said that (b) was correct.

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"Far beyond unconventional levels of dishonesty"

For the Washington Post opinion blog The Plum Line, Greg Sargent wrote: "The events of this week are revealing with a new level of clarity that President Trump and the White House have ventured far beyond unconventional levels of dishonesty."

Obligatory screenshot:

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Negative stereotypes, utterly destroyed?

After last night's doozy of a Republican debate, Meghan McCain tweeted the following this morning:

McCain's dim view of the current crop of presidential candidates doesn't support the notion that they are "utterly destroying" negative stereotypes about Republicans, as several people pointed out. Quite the opposite, in fact.

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Waste bin misnegation

I saw a sticker on the lid of a pedal-operated hospital waste bin that said this:


Everyone who uses the bin sees this notice; maybe some even read it and try to respect it; but perhaps only Language Log readers will notice that it contains a misnegation — another sign that the number of negations within a sentence that our poor monkey brains can successfully handle averages out at little more than 1.

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Not anybody who doesn't think it won't

Professor Pauline Jacobson of Brown University asks Language Log whether Dana Bash, CNN's chief congressional correspondent, is saying the government will shut down or that it won't. Language Log likes to go back to primary sources, so here is a verified direct quotation from Ms. Bash on this topic that appeared on the website of in Milwaukee:

"I've not talked to anybody here who doesn't think it's a very, very big possibility, even Republicans, that the government won't shut down — even for a short time," Bash said.

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No small wonder

This example of hypernegation (it that's what it is) was sent to me by Karl Zimmer:

From a review by Hilton Als of the play "The Madrid" in The New Yorker (3/11/2013; p. 76):
In a recent interview, Falco pointed out how infrequently she's offered "first dibs" on new plays. She explained, "I get offered them, but only after other people turn them down." Given that Falco is, artistically speaking, the heir to the late Maureen Stapleton–another toweringly talented actress who insisted on bare truth, not truthiness, in her performances– it's no small wonder that producers consider her a commercial risk…

This looks more to me like a blend of no wonder and small wonder than it does of negation-gone-wild. But of course that's just a guess.

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Don't be discouraged from not voting

Ben Yagoda spotted a nice case of overnegation on NPR's "Morning Edition" earlier today, when Renee Montagne interviewed political science professor Michael McDonald about early voting. After explaining that Obama was leading in early voting in Nevada, McDonald said, "I don't want to discourage people from not voting today."

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This is not to say that I don't think that it isn't illogical

In November of 2000, Ted Briscoe interviewed Gerald Gazdar about the history of "Generalized Phrase Structure Grammar". In the course of that interview, Gazdar said:

That is not to say that I don't think that corpus work can't be useful, even in theoretical syntax.

,,,by which he meant to say that he thinks that corpus work can be useful, even in theoretical syntax.

If you apply your intuitions to the problem of building this sentence up out of its parts, I think you'll find that what he said actually ought to be logically the opposite of what he meant, at least in the forms of English that lack negative concord.

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I can do pretty much whatever minus not being stupid

I just really like this sentence from the Baltimore Orioles' Nolan Reimold, who is recovering slowly from a herniated disk in his neck. "I can do pretty much whatever minus not being stupid." I find that a great sentence that could be used in a lot of situations, e.g. retirement …

No big linguistic point. Just three nice little dialectal variants in a row — that use of "whatever"; "minus" in place of "except for", and the inclusion of "not" in such a context. I think they've all been discussed in posts at one time or another, but this three-in-a-row is a gem, plus [oh, there's a 'plus'; I'm infected] I love the sentiment.

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Not true that they cannot say they aren't?

Levi Montgomery writes to me:

I have read the question in this report (TSA Let 25 Illegal Aliens Attend Flight School Owned by Illegal Alien, CNS News, 18 July 2012) at least a dozen times now, and I'm not sure which answer means what (although I freely admit the intent is clear, both from the questioner and from the answerer). I thought you'd like to see it.

Stephen Lord, who is the GAO's director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues, testified about the matter Wednesday in Rogers' subcommittee. Rogers asked him: "Isn't it true that, based on your report, the Transportation Security Administration cannot assure the American people that foreign terrorists are not in this country learning how to fly airplanes, yes or no?"

Mr Lord responded: "At this time, no."

Ye gods, that sort of crazy multiple negation makes me afraid, very afraid, of having to take the witness stand.

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