Archive for negation

Misnegation of the month

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 …"

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Prophylactic over-negation

Almost the end of January, and not a single Language Log reader hasn't failed to complain about the lack of over-negation in any of this year's posts. But here's some naughtily nutty negation anyway:

"It's not that I don't doubt the sincerity of their desire to protect the talent. And believe it or not, we have the same ambition," Christian Mann, general manager of Evil Angel Productions who also serves on the porn industry's Free Speech Coalition, said last week after the council's vote. "We just don't believe their way is the best way." (Associated PressLA mayor signs law requiring condoms in porn films, Jan. 24, 2012; widely syndicated story.)

Hmm. That's a curious lack of non-self-doubt. So does it mean Mann does in fact doubt the sincerity  of "their" desire to protect the talent? I don't think so.

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Another Newt "not"

Once again on the Newt negation watch… In last night's Republican debate in Iowa, Gingrich defended his previous support of an individual mandate for health care insurance. He explained that he held this stance back in 1993, when he was combating so-called "Hillarycare":

I frankly was floundering, trying to find a way to make sure that people who could afford it were paying their hospital bills, while still leaving an out for libertarians to not buy insurance. (video)

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Newt's not not engaging

ABC is proving itself to be the Newt not network. Earlier this month, Newt Gingrich provided a puzzling (but technically correct) instance of negation in an interview with Jake Tapper of ABC News: "It's very hard not to look at the recent polls and think that the odds are very high I'm going to be the nominee." Last night, after the Republican presidential debate in Iowa sponsored by ABC News, political analyst Matthew Dowd made a surprising observation on Gingrich's performance:

There was not a single attack tonight that he did not not engage on.

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Newt's negation

Geoff Pullum is, of course, right on the money when he points out that our frequent difficulties in interpreting multiple negations indicate that we are all "semantic over-achievers, trying to use languages that are quite a bit beyond our intellectual powers." Or, as Mark Liberman once put it, negation often overwhelms our "poor monkey brains." (For more, see Mark's master list of Language Log posts on misnegation woes.) Yesterday, Newt Gingrich provided a nice example of the trickiness of negation: even though what he said was technically correct, it was still difficult for some to parse.

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Multiple negation: over-reaching again

Following up on Never fails: semantic over-achievers, Language Log reader John O'Meara told me that he recently received a gift voucher on which one of the legally binding conditions is the following:

6. Cash nor credit will not be issued for balance of gift voucher not redeemed in full.

He has absolutely no clear sense of what this does (or does not) entitle him to. Nor does Language Log. Not. One stares at it, and although one can guess at what was probably supposed to be the policy, one fails to extract a statement of it from the above wording using just the syntax and semantics of one's native language. At least, that's how it is for me (your mileage may differ). In particular, if you make the initial noun phrase grammatical by prefixing neither, you get something that is almost certainly the opposite of what was meant (Neither cash nor credit will not be issued for balance of gift voucher not redeemed in full means that both cash and credit will be issued).

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Never fails: semantic over-achievers

I am quite certain that the reviewer kiwi78 was trying to do good things for the Nahm restaurant in Knightsbridge, a district of south-west London. But the comment left at the Bookatable.com site's page about Nahm actually said that the restaurant "never fails to disappoint."

Think about it for a moment. For the restaurant, that's not good, is it? Disappointing. It couldn't fail to disappoint.

But look at the full context of kiwi78's remarks:

Nahm never fails to disappoint on flavour & service. Dishes are complex yet superbly balanced & always beautifully presented. If you're new or not confident with Thai food the staff are very attentive & knowledgeable.

It's supposed to be a great review. And the restaurant took it for that: the management has started including kiwi78's comment in its advertising material!

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Watching the deceptive

After almost a month, I'm finally following up on the results of the single-question surveys that I asked Language Log readers to participate in. Each survey received an overwhelming 1500+ responses, and I didn't realize that I needed a "pro" (= "paid") account on SurveyMonkey in order to view more than the first 100. I owe special thanks to Mohammad Mehdi Etedali, to whom I transfered the surveys and who kindly sent me the overall percentages.

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Never no one without Cornish

Wikipedia's article on the Cornish language (the Brythonic Celtic language once spoken in the county of Cornwall, England) quotes this sentence (twice, in fact) from Henry Jenner, author of Handbook of the Cornish Language (1904):

There has never been a time when there has been no person in Cornwall without a knowledge of the Cornish language.

Oh, what a mess we do create when first we practice to negate! Let's just think that sentence through, counting up the negations carefully.

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Very not appreciative

This use of "very not appreciative" caught my eye on Sunday:

“I’m very not appreciative of the way she came in here,” Ted Shpak, the national legislative director for Rolling Thunder, told the Washington Post.

This construction is not in my own dialect; it reminds me of the recent broader uses of "so". ("I'm so not ready for this", which I had perhaps mistakenly been mentally lumping together with "That's so Dick Cheney" or "That's so 1960's".)

I'm not sure what's changing, "very" or "not" or both. I suspect that "not" may be moving into uses previously reserved for "un-".

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Unsucking the suck

On The New Yorker's Book Bench blog, Eileen Reynolds writes about a site called "Unsuck It" that translates corporatese: "You type in a particularly odious word or phrase—'incentivize,' say—and 'Unsuck It' spits out the plain-English equivalent, along with a sentence for context." Reynolds uses the occasion to vent about how words can change their parts of speech when they work their way into corporate jargon:

Once words enter the workplace they’re allowed to bounce about between different parts-of-speech with freewheeling fluidity. Nouns become verbs. Verbs become nouns. Sam Lipsyte’s miserably funny “The Ask” is, among other things, a brilliant riff on this alarming phenomenon.

We've grappled with such issues of anthimeria from time to time on Language Log (on the nouning of ask, for instance, see Arnold Zwicky's 2008 post). But I'm more interested in the morphology of "Unsuck It" itself.

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Not sacrificing anything to prevent anything…not

From a Livescience.com article (about a police chief who recommends keystroke-logging your kids to obtain their passwords so you can find out where they go online) comes this disastrous tangle of a sentence, which will take hours of police time to clear up:

"When it comes down to safety and welfare of your child, I don’t think any parent would sacrifice anything to make sure nothing happens to their children," said Batelli, the father of a teenage daughter.

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Not not propping open the door

Do not prop open this door for security reasons, says a sign on the inside of the side door to a garage full of delivery trucks on Haste Street in Berkeley. (Interestingly, this morning I noticed that the door was propped open with a traffic cone.) And then it goes on:

Failure to do so will result in disciplinary actions.

But… failure to do what? What has gone wrong here?

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