Not doubting that not

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"Woody Allen Speaks Out", NYT 2/7/2014:

Not that I doubt Dylan hasn’t come to believe she’s been molested, but if from the age of 7 a vulnerable child is taught by a strong mother to hate her father because he is a monster who abused her, is it so inconceivable that after many years of this indoctrination the image of me Mia wanted to establish had taken root?

As usual, it's hard to keep score, but there might be an extra negative in that first clause.

This seems to be a case where the remnants of negative concord are not quite in balance with the logic of negation cancellation. Here are a few (of the relatively infrequent) web examples where "not doubt that not X" means "concede that X", as in Woody Allen's usage:

In last nights episode, Olivia told Edison that she loved him, and I don’t doubt that she didn’t love him, but the thing that got to me was that she said it so easily. (= "I concede that she loved him")

My dad, being as decent a man as he was, if he said he was going to be somewhere, he was. My mum could be unpredictable. I didn’t doubt that she didn’t love me — I know she did, and I her. But being in show business, dealing with alcoholics (Ted Andrews) and becoming an alcoholic herself, she was not as reliable as was my dad. (= "I concede that she loved me")

I have to say, I didn’t doubt that it wasn’t black. In fact, I don’t think he could get much blacker. It hasn’t really rejuvenated his hair, just covered it in tar. (= "I concede that it was black")

 Here are some web examples (apparently much more frequent) where "not doubt that not X" = "concede that  not X", the opposite of his usage:

No matter what you say, comparing a bunch of headphones in a retail store does not make you an expert on all the headphones you heard.     Sure, you might get an idea on what you liked or did not like, but you will not be better informed than someone who actually owns them and has heard them with different amps and under different conditions.   I don't doubt that you didn't like them, or that your impressions  do not change over extended periods, but that does not make this a bad headphone. (= "I concede that you didn't like them")

I agree, but it answers those who go the other way, and find Rashi inconclusive. I don't doubt that it isn't unanimous. (= "I concede that it isn't unanimous")

I wrote the ugly code in question. I don't doubt that it isn't particularly performant and honestly I never run any of the throttling code in production. That said the intention was to implement the size calculation in a way that didn't require a lock. (= "I concede that it isn't particularly performant")

It would be very interesting to see what a Russian audience would make of our efforts because I think British choirs make a very beautiful sound, but there's no doubt that we don't make the same kind of heavy and really strong sound that the Russians do. (= "I concede that we don't make the same kind of sound")

They don’t consciously do it, I have no doubt that they don’t realise that they are denying the Saviour, but indeed they are, and in many cases with a vehemence! (= "I concede that they don't realize that they are denying him")

No doubt that guys don't like to use feminine products that smell girlish. But they love to smell these things on their girlfriends. (= "I concede that guys don't like to use feminine products")




  1. Oskar Sigvardsson said,

    February 8, 2014 @ 9:33 am

    I've never properly analyzed a sentence like this, so lets give it a try. From the context of the paragraph, it's clear that what he's saying is that "while the accusations are untrue, I believe that Dylan believes that they are true".

    So, going through it slowly, one could phrase that:

    "I believe that Dylan has come to believe that she's been molested"

    Add a negative in there, and the sentence means the opposite:

    "I believe that Dylan hasn't come to believe that she's been molested"

    That would be a very clumsy way of saying that she's willfully lying. But change the believe to a doubt, and the meaning switches again:

    "I doubt that Dylan hasn't come to believe that she's been molested"

    That would match up with his intended meaning. But, if you add the final negative, the initial "not", and the meaning gets all screwed up

    "Not that I doubt that Dylan hasn't come to believe that she's been molested"

    or in other words:

    "I believe that Dylan hasn't come to believe that she's been molested".

    So yes, one to many negatives. And everyone keeps calling him a great writer!

  2. GeorgeW said,

    February 8, 2014 @ 9:35 am

    "This seems to be a case where the remnants of negative concord are not quite in balance with the logic of negation cancellation."

    The fact that we process this (as I did when reading the letter) without pausing and having to do a logical analysis, suggests that we do have negative accord in our intuitive grammar.

  3. Eric P Smith said,

    February 8, 2014 @ 9:46 am

    These may be cases of negative concord, or they may be cases of “monkey brain”. But I wonder if there are two further influences at work here.

    First, there is the older use of ‘to doubt’ meaning ‘to fear’, as in “I doubt I have killed the Red Comyn”. The cases in question here are regular if ‘doubt’ is understood in that older sense. The older sense was still in occasional use in Scotland in my childhood (1950s) and I remember being unsure of how myself to use ‘to doubt’ in view of that ambiguity.

    Secondly, two of the quoted cases are of the form “not doubt that not X” where “X” = “love”. To doubt a person means to mistrust them. So “I don’t doubt that she” suggests “I trust her”, and we tend to hear the meaning “I believe she loves me” rather than “I believe she doesn’t love me” regardless of whether the count of negatives is even or odd.

  4. Mark Dowson said,

    February 8, 2014 @ 12:51 pm

    I certainly struggled to understand the meaning of the original sentence, and it seems like there are difficulties with almost any sentence involving "doubt". One approach is to interpret "I doubt X" as meaning "I believe that the probability of X, is low" or, equivalently, "I believe that the probability of notX is high". Then it is fairly easy to interpret the various negations:

    "Not that I doubt Dylan hasn’t come to believe she’s been molested" ->
    "Not (I doubt (not (Dylan has come to believe she’s been molested)))"->
    "Not (I believe that the probability of (Dylan has come to believe she’s been molested is high)"->
    "I believe that the probability of (Dylan has come to believe she’s been molested) is low"

  5. Mark Dowson said,

    February 8, 2014 @ 12:58 pm

    Of course, the equivalence of "I doubt X" as meaning "I believe that the probability of X, is low" and "I believe that the probability of notX is high" in the analysis assumes an excluded middle

  6. Craig said,

    February 8, 2014 @ 2:20 pm

    He definitely managed to trip over his negations in that sentence, and there are a few other sentences in that article that seem a bit too complicated for their own good. But this is a very painful issue for him and I'm prepared to let a few minor mistakes pass in such a case.

    As for whether or not he is a "great writer", well, he has, at times, produced remarkable films. Personally, I prefer his comedies over his more serious works; not only early films like "Bananas" and "Sleeper", but later ones such as "Broadway Danny Rose", which was really quite charming.

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 8, 2014 @ 4:03 pm

    What I find interesting in terms of the monkey-brain-limitations issue is that it is highly unlikely this was just Allen himself dashing off a quick first draft on an emotionally-charged subject and understandably getting muddled. Given the nature of the issue and the forum in which he was getting his version of the dispute out, it seems highly likely that the final text for publication was reviewed/vetted by multiple legal/PR/etc. advisers before it ran (meaning people in Allen's own camp, without regard to whatever work the NYT people might have put in). That none of them seem to have caught the glitch is separately worth noting. (Of course, it's also possible that one of these advisers, rather than Allen himself, inadvertently inserted the glitch in the context of some other editing proposal, or that multiple hands tried to rewrite the same sentence and didn't perfectly harmonize their respective contributions. I don't know if there's a separate literature on characteristic production errors that can arise as a result of there being multiple cooks in the sentence-generating kitchen rather than the infirmities that characterize the individual poor-monkey-brain.)

  8. GeorgeW said,

    February 8, 2014 @ 4:37 pm

    Was anyone confused by what he meant before doing a careful, logical analysis? I suspect not, like a statement such as, "She don't have no money." Does anyone interpret this to mean that she really does have some money?

  9. Eric P Smith said,

    February 8, 2014 @ 5:36 pm


    The example you give, “She don’t have no money” meaning “She doesn’t have any money” is a good example of negative concord in certain non-standard varieties of English. Negative concord also exists in standard English, eg “I shouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t rain.” So the existence of negative concord in English isn’t in doubt. The harder question is whether Woody Allen’s statement is an instance of it.

    And no, what he said didn’t confuse me. But it may nevertheless be an interesting linguistic phenomenon worthy of discussion on Language Log.

  10. Mar Rojo said,

    February 8, 2014 @ 5:56 pm

    For me, the difference is clear here:

    I don't doubt that he's coming.
    I don't doubt that he isn't coming.

  11. GeorgeW said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 8:56 am

    @Eric P Smith: I didn't intend to imply that it should not be discussed, in fact, I felt like I was discussing it. The mere and immediate comprehensibility suggests to me that it is part of our grammar.

  12. exackerly said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 2:15 pm

    The situation is complicated by the fact that "doubt" used to could mean either "believe" or "not believe":

    Doubt thou the stars are fire,
    Doubt that the sun doth move,
    Doubt truth to be a liar,
    But never doubt I love.

    Where the third line reverses the meaning of "doubt" in the first two lines.

  13. Rodger C said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 10:50 am

    To complicate matters, Shakespeare was writing in a time when the first two propositions were in fact coming under doubt, and he was probably making an ironic gesture in that direction.

  14. Eric P Smith said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 10:56 am


    Good example. And once again, having X = love pragmatically disambiguates the last of the four lines.

  15. Robert Coren said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 11:18 am

    Shakespeare may also heave been intending to have Hamlet suggest that Truth is, in fact, a liar.

    As for Allen's statement, yes, I'm pretty sure it has one negative too many, but the meaning is clear because it's the only thing he could sensibly mean.

  16. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 12:02 pm

    In the classic instances of what we might call rustic or non-prestige negative concord, there is no actual ambiguity. It is vanishingly rare to use "she don't have no money" to mean "she has some unspecified but positive amount of money." Whereas myl's data above indicates that employing "not doubt that not X" to mean the opposite of what Allen intended here is the more frequent usage. That said, in this particular context, if one wanted to indicate that one retained residual doubts about Dylan Farrow's current subjective sincerity there would be any number of clearer ways to convey that.

  17. cs said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 4:21 pm

    Somehow, to me, "no doubt…" emphasizes the agreement with the following phrase a lot more than "I don't doubt…". It would definitely sound wrong to me to use "I have no doubt that [not X]" to mean X.

  18. Mar Rojo said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 4:30 am

    Here's another:

    'If you don't think what I do is not hard, you're a damn idiot'

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