When adding is subtracting

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"In the Unverified Digital World, Are Journalists and Bloggers Equal?", Slashdot 3/24/2014:

As the source of news moves increasingly away from traditional channels to the millions of people carrying mobile phones and sharing commentary, photos and video on social networks, the distinction between journalists and bloggers has become increasingly blurred. Making sense of this type of information has been as much a challenge for journalists as it has bloggers. Journalists, like bloggers, have had to learn new skills in working in this environment. Highlighting this has been the release of the Verification Handbook which attempts to educate journalists in how to process user-generated content in the form of videos or images acknowledging that much of the reporting about situations, especially emergency ones, comes from the public. The techniques outlined are accessible to anyone reporting on a story, adding to the eroding gap between bloggers and journalists.

WCS, who sent this in, points out that it involves the same sort of "positive-negative backflip" that may play a role in the hard to understate examples, and perhaps in some of the other misnegation cases.

Certainly "adding to the gap", in this passage,  means to make the gap smaller — apparently by way of adding to its erosion.

It may also be instructive to compre cases of the  filling a much-needed gap type. Roger Koenker has proposed a "Society for the Preservation of Gaps in the Literature", and cites Allyn Jackson,  "Chinese Acrobatics, an Old-Time Brewery, and the 'Much Needed Gap': The Life of Mathematical Reviews", Notices of the AMS 1997, which includes this origin story:

Snide reviews form part of the folklore of Mathematical Reviews. The most famous one is as sublimely succinct as it is damning: “This paper fills a much needed gap in the literature.”

Though well known, this sentence never actually appeared in a review. Its origins were explained in a letter from Lee Neuwirth to Gerald Janusz, who looked into the matter when he served as executive editor from 1990 to 1992. Around 1960, when he was an instructor at Princeton, Neuwirth began a review of an article by Hale Trotter with the infamous sentence. Unaware of what he had done, Neuwirth showed the review to his colleague Ralph Fox, who “roared with laughter.” Fox rewrote the review, and it eventually appeared, without the sentence, under Fox’s name (MR 24 (1962), 683, number A3645). It appears that Fox told the story about the sentence to others, but in the telling he left out the names of Neuwirth and Trotter.

Lee Neuwirth may have independently invented the error, but he was not its first creator. Thus we have the "Forty-fourth Annual Report of the [NY] State Museum of Natural History", 12/3/1890:

In the palaeontological department the Rust collection of fossils, from the Trenton and Hudson river groups, near Trenton Falls, is preeminent. It fills a much needed gap, particularly in its magnificent specimens of trilobites of the Trenton epoch.

Or the  Review, of Allan McLane Hamilton, A System of Legal Medicine, in The University of Pennsylvania Medical Bulletin, 1895:

There has been no exhaustive book on this subject in this country, and Dr. Hamilton's system fills a much-needed gap.

And there are many other examples of prior art, or perhaps we should say spontaneous generation.

Professor Koenker also quotes John Maynard Keynes, in his Treatise on Probability, arguing (in effect) that it would be better to form a Society for the Creation of Gaps in the Literature:

I have not read all these books myself, but I have read more of them than it would be good for any one to read again. There are here enumerated many dead treatises and ghostly memoirs. The list is too long, and I have not always successfully resisted the impulse to add to it in the spirit of a collector. There are not above a hundred of these which it would be worth while to preserve,–if only it were securely ascertained which these hundred are. At present a bibliographer takes pride in numerous entries; but he would be a more useful fellow, and the labours of research would be lightened, if he could practise deletion and bring into existence an accredited Index Expurgatorius. But this can only be accomplished by the slow mills of the collective judgement of the learned; and I have already indicated my own favorite authors in copious footnotes to the main body of the text.


  1. richardelguru said,

    March 25, 2014 @ 7:28 am

    "Fox rewrote the review"
    I wonder if he did more than:
    'This much-needed paper fills a gap in the literature.'

  2. Brett Reynolds said,

    March 25, 2014 @ 8:25 am

    Isn't there one of the classical rhetorical devices that attribute the characteristic of one thing to the other? Here the filling has the characteristics of being important, but that is being attributed to the gap. It reminds me of the Tragically Hip song "Wheat Kings" with the lyrics:

    And all you hear are the rusty breezes
    Pushing around the weather vane Jesus

  3. KevinR said,

    March 25, 2014 @ 8:28 am

    "adding to the eroding gap" — my interpretation breaks down with "eroding gap", with "adding" only a secondary issue. Is an eroding gap getting wider or narrower? That is, is the gap eroding or the stuff around the (negative space) gap eroding?

    Only then can one ask whether "adding" is increasing the pace of erosion (whichever direction), increasing the gap, or increasing the not-gap.

    "increasing the decreasing(ly?) negative space" just doesn't work.

  4. KevinR said,

    March 25, 2014 @ 8:37 am

    I found this to be an interesting (and seemingly correct) negation pile for English, but has to be hard to translate for an international audience (even though the author is Austrian). More impressive that this might be paraphrased/translated from Malaysian:
    "On Mar 24th 2014 Malaysia's Prime Minister announced that according to new computations by Inmarsat and the British AAIB there is no reasonable doubt that flight MH-370 ended in the South Indian Ocean west of Perth (Australia)." (The Aviation Herald, end of first paragraph)

  5. Brett said,

    March 25, 2014 @ 8:47 am

    I agree that both "adding" and "eroding" seem wrong with gap, but "eroding" is worse. I presume that is because while "adding" is rather abstract, both "eroding" and "gap" are related to physical metaphors. In fact, the same default physical configuration is actually evoked in both metaphors, at least for me. When I read "eroding gap," I envision a rock formation, which has a gap between two ledges, and the ledges are eroding. There is a very, very strong impression that an "eroding gap" must be getting wider.

  6. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 25, 2014 @ 9:30 am

    My problem with the original quotation is with "eroding". It should be adding to the filling-in of the gap", which is pretty close to "adding to the disappearance of the gap", which is something like the incongruous "adding to the erosion of the gap", which is like the even worse "adding to the eroding gap".

    On the subject of prior art, the Quote Investigator has this from 1857:

    "But, until this much needed gap is filled up between the two cities, the passenger en route from the North will be compelled to give Charleston the go-bye, and continue on his journey to Savannah and Florida via Kingsville, Branchville, and Augusta, over an increased distance of 115 miles …"

    1857 September 21, Charleston Mercury, Charleston and Savannah Railroad, Page 2, Column 5, Charleston, South Carolina. (GenealogyBank)

    The first compositional use of the phrase given there is from 1950:

    "Dr. G. R. Y. Radcliffe, in the course of The Times’ correspondence suggested that the remedy was in the hands of M.P.s who should refuse to pass legislation which they did not understand. This solution, although certainly the ideal to be aimed at, would probably result in a complete cessation of parliamentary activity if introduced all at once. Thus, although attractive at first sight, it would, it is feared, merely result in ‘the much needed gap’ being filled by further delegated legislation."

    1950 October, The Modern Law Review, Vol. 13, No. 4, Page 488, Blackwell Publishing. (JSTOR)

  7. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 25, 2014 @ 9:35 am

    Brett Reynolds: The classical name for the device is "hypallage". When the word moved is an adjective it can be called a "transferred adjective" or "transferred epithet". The Wikipedia article has some examples.

  8. GeorgeW said,

    March 25, 2014 @ 10:05 am

    To me, gaps should widen or narrow. So, "adding to the eroding gap" would be improved by something like 'contributing to the already narrowing gap.'

  9. Brett said,

    March 25, 2014 @ 10:17 am

    @GeorgeW: That deals with the worse problem of "eroding," but whether it's "adding" or "contributing," what's left still seems quite wrong. Both suggest increasing the gap, which still should be making it wider, not narrower.

  10. Gene Callahan said,

    March 25, 2014 @ 10:53 am

    Yes, Brett, I agree. They way to say it unambiguously is to make the addition attach to the verb:

    "Adding to the narrowing of the gap…"


    "Adding to the widening of the gap…"

    I don't see how anyone could mistake the meaning of either of those ways of putting it.

  11. Brett Reynolds said,

    March 25, 2014 @ 10:59 am

    Thank you, Jerry! I knew somebody would come up with it.

  12. Daniel Barkalow said,

    March 25, 2014 @ 5:05 pm

    I'm imagining a trench between bloggers and journalists, with the formerly steep sides wearing away. Erosion would make the gap wider, but, more importantly, shallower, and former bloggers and journalists would end up in the gap together, rather than on level ground on either side.

  13. Rubrick said,

    March 25, 2014 @ 5:11 pm

    From what I know of semiconductor technology, it's entirely possible that something might fill a much-needed gap (thus destroying the desired properties of the material). I hereby request that someone who writes papers in this field contrive to get that phrase in there for our amusement.

    [(myl) I'm sorry to say that the phrase "much needed band gap" is unknown to Google Scholar. However, Kiran kumar Lingam's 2012 dissertation, "Spectroscopic Signature for Bundling, Edge States and Impurities in 1D and 0D Materials", does contain the sentence

    On the other hand, GNRs ahve significant advantages when compared to GQDs; their dimensionality makes them suitable for application in electronics over GQDs and they also provide the much needed band gap.

    Until now, however, no one has ever written about filling the much-needed band gap.]

  14. Brett said,

    March 25, 2014 @ 6:55 pm

    I'm afraid you're never going to see somebody writing about "filling the much-needed band gap," because of a conflict in terminology. A conduction band is a set of states that may be "filled" with electrons. How filled a band is is arguably its most important property. Since a band gap is, by definition, an energy range that cannot be filled with electrons, talking about filling a band gap sounds totally wrong. (There are other kinds of energy bands besides those for electrons—photon and phonon energy bands, for example—which may or may not have gaps. Since these are bands for bosonic quanta, they cannot be filled up the way electron bands can; they can always accommodate more quanta. However, I don't think one could talk about "filling" these bands either, for essentially the same reasons.)

  15. Sybil said,

    March 25, 2014 @ 9:19 pm

    @ Brett and Gene Callahan: I'd prefer

    "contributing to the narrowing of the gap"

    but, ugh, how stilted. There must be a better way to say this.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    March 25, 2014 @ 11:47 pm

    We have the same sort of construction in Chinese, both in Mandarin and in Classical Chinese (examples below). I must say that, when I first encountered the notion of something becoming increasingly less, it was hard for me to wrap my head around it. However, after I realized that this was a fairly common usage, I simply forced myself to accept it, and by now I take it for granted.


    Bǎ yàowù jiāyǐ xīshì 把药物加以稀释 ("increase the dilution of the medicine", i.e., "dilute the medicine")

    This example is taken from the following site:



    From Mencius, "King Hui of Liang", part A: Lín guó zhī mín bù jiā shǎo, guǎrén zhī mín bù jiā duō, hé yě? 鄰國之民不加少,寡人之民不加多,何也?("Why is it that the people of the neighboring state are not increasingly fewer and the people of my state are not increasingly more numerous?")

  17. Bill Taylor said,

    March 26, 2014 @ 12:05 pm

    @ Sybil – how about:

    The techniques outlined are accessible to anyone reporting on a story, further narrowing the gap between bloggers and journalists.

    Bill "I'm not a copy editor but I play one on TV" Taylor

  18. cs said,

    March 26, 2014 @ 1:53 pm

    Earlier in the passage the writer uses another metaphor for the same thing – a "distinction" which is "increasingly blurred". So if they had only stuck with the same image, the phrase could have been "adding to the blurring [of the] distinction", which makes a little more sense.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    March 26, 2014 @ 8:44 pm

    Here are some more examples:

    jiāyǐ jīngjiǎn 加以精簡 ("increasingly [OR additionally / in addition /subject to] streamline / simplify / reduce / abridge / prune / constrict / diminish / oversimplify")

    jiāyǐ jiǎnhuà 加以簡化 ("increasingly reduce / simplify")

    jiāyǐ xuējiǎn 加以削減 ("increasingly reduce / minify / cut down / slash / whittle down")

    jiāyǐ cáijiǎn 加以裁減 ("increasingly reduce / cut down / lessen / diminish")

    jiāyǐ jiǎnshǎo 加以減少 ("reduce / cut back / decrease / lessen / lower / subside")

    N.B.: jiāyǐ 加以 means such things as "moreover; in addition; further; inflict; subject to; handle; expose; for the additional reason of"

  20. John Finkbiner said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 6:29 am

    I nominate "narrowing the gap," or "further narrowing the gap."

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