A long time since we did not meet

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I heard from cindy today. She would do well to join Becky in going to night school in grammar. Her message began thus:

Hi there!

It has been long time since we did not meet. I hope everything is okay with you.

She barely needed to continue by saying she had recently "found a great medicine shop on the net…"; I could see that coming. It certainly has been a long time since we did not meet, cindy. And I hope it will be a long time before we do not meet again.

A correspondent called MikeYankee wrote to me to suggest that French influence might be implicated here, since (he says) "French does this sort of thing with the pleonastic ne. For example: Je crains que madame ne vienne = 'I'm afraid my wife will come' (not won't)." He's quite right, this is probably very relevant. This spamming cindy may be a speaker of French, and her native language interferes with the grammar of the language in which she spams.

Mike adds: "Perhaps some other languages do this too; I'm not aware of any." He's right there too. There is plenty of evidence for this kind of concealed overnegation in the syntax of languages that we call pleonastic negation. The existence of several such languages was the topic of the first talk I ever heard by the Dutch linguist Pieter Seuren, who visited the University of York some time around 1969. Pieter reminded me of that talk recently when I visited him at his home not far from Nijmegen. I was an undergraduate when I heard that talk, and he was a young linguist at Magdalen College, Oxford. So Pieter and I have been good friends now for 40 very interesting years. Pieter pointed out in the talk that pleonastic negation occurs in comparatives, and there's a semantic reason. If I claim that I've known Pieter longer than you have, then there's an x (not greater than about 14,600) such that I've known Pieter for x days and you have not known Pieter for x days. French pops in a ne as if to remind you of the implied negative claim buried in there.

And of course, if it's a long time since we met, then there is a long period during which we have not met, so there's a trace of negativeness in there too. Some languages choose to express it overtly.

The point of all this, really, is that even cindy's illiterate and annoying medical spam is more interesting when you know some linguistics.


  1. Lance said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 1:36 pm

    I believe "pleonastic ne" is the same phenomenon that Aviad Eilam, a grad student here at Penn, has been studying in Hebrew under the name "expletive negation". In Hebrew, it occurs in until-clauses (I'll sleep until the party not starts = "I'll sleep until the party starts") and free relatives (What Danny not wrote appeared in the newspaper = "What Danny wrote appeared in the newspaper"). It's an interesting topic, certainly worthy of further study—especially the way in which it varies cross-linguistically.

    (Eilam's analysis for Hebrew is that it's like English "-ever": it introduces a sense of indifference or uncertainty, i.e. "Whatever Danny wrote appeared in the newspaper." I don't know that this works for French; it does seem to work for Cindy, whose sentence would then mean "It's been a long time since whenever we met"—i.e., I don't recall when it was, but whenever it was, it's been a long time".)

  2. Lance said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 1:39 pm

    (Oh, just my luck to post this here, without seeing that his work is discussed in the comments to the next post! Ah well, it applies here too.)

  3. Andrej Bjelakovic said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 2:07 pm

    The same occurs in Serbian, in until-clauses.

  4. Coby Lubliner said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 2:16 pm

    In French it isn't just the pleonastic ne in conjunction with craindre and the like. In fact it's generally acknowledged that il y a longtemps que je l'ai vu and il y a longtemps que je ne l'ai pas vu mean the same thing, I haven't seen him in a long time, with the first (positive) variant interpreted as it's been a long time since I've seen him.

  5. marie-lucie said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 2:54 pm

    I just wrote a fairly detailed comment, only to have it disappear as I inadvertently hit a wrong button, but I was making the same point as Cody Lubliner.

    To add to what Coby says: non-negative, "pleonastic" ne in conjunction with a few verbs such as craindre is not the right analogy here (and that ne is not totally meaningless but reinforces the meaning of improbability).

    Instead Cindy's message shows a conflation between two semantically equivalent structures in Standard English:

    It's been a long time since we last met (positive)
    We haven't met for a long time. (negative)

    In French, there is a subtle difference between the two examples:

    Il y a longtemps que je l'ai vu "It's been a long time since I saw him" (no other connotations)


    Il y a longtemps que je ne l'ai pas vu "I haven't seen him in a long time" (even though I might have expected to see him)


    Il y a longtemps que je t'ai écrit "It's been a long time since I wrote to you" (and perhaps you haven't replied)


    Il a longtemps que je ne t'ai pas écrit "I haven't written to you in a long time" (but I probably should have and I regret the delay).

    So Cindy might have been apologizing to Becky, or regretting that to much time had passed during which they did not meet.

  6. Manuela said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 2:58 pm

    The same happens in Italian:

    E' tanto che NON ci vediamo.

    It also happens with finche' (until):

    Finche' morte non ci separi (til death do us apart)

  7. Jesse Tseng said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 3:22 pm

    Since this is turning into a French-fest… The pleonastic ne in French comparative clauses is kind of an outlier, because otherwise you only find this ne optionally in subjunctive clauses. In classical French, comparatives could contain a full negation, not a pleonastic one. Ah! vous avez plus faim que vous ne pensez pas, lit. "Oh! You were hungrier than you didn't think" (Molière, quoted in Wilmet 1997). In ModFr it would be — as Geoff said Pieter said — plus faim que vous (ne) (le) pensez.

    I don't believe cindy was imitating Molière, however. I could be that she just doesn't have a very good grasp of the meaning of since in English. But she seems nice enough.

  8. marie-lucie said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 4:39 pm

    'I'm afraid my wife will come'

    Non-French speakers wishing to use this sentence should not memorize

    Je crains que madame ne vienne

    where madame is a very old-fashioned way of referring to a wife, female boss or other lady in a superior position. In the case of a man referring to his wife, using madame would imply that he is talking to a servant – in fact it would be more likely that the person pronouncing this sentence is a very well-educated servant or subordinate. An old-fashioned gentleman, Monsieur X might refer to his wife as Madame X in speaking to a person of equal status whom he knew, but plain Madame implies that the person referred to is the lady of the house, in speaking among persons belonging to the household (and similarly with Monsieur for the male head of the household). On the other hand, in a fancy shop or restaurant customers might be addressed (as well as referred to) as Monsieur or Madame followed by a third-person verb form, as in Madame désire-t-elle s'asseoir? "Does the lady wish to sit down?" This is an extremely stilted kind of sentence.

  9. Morten Jonsson said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 5:20 pm

    What Cindy said makes perfect sense to me–it's easy to imagine a specific occasion when two people didn't meet, and then to refer back to that. As Cary Grant might say to Deborah Kerr, "It has been long time since we did not meet at Empire State Building."

  10. Simon Musgrave said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 6:11 pm

    I can't resist pointing to some comments on this issue by Quine which are characteristically clear and witty. In his Quiddities, there is an entry entitled Idiotisms, where he discusses Romance examples such as fin che non giunga il Re.

  11. Mark Liberman said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 6:28 pm

    Simon Musgrave: Thank you for the link to Quine's Quiddities, which I had never read, but soon will. However, I need to point out that either he was being obscurely playful in the section that you cite, or the typesetter did something very, very odd (something that was not caught in proofreading), or Google Books has performed an equally unexpected bit of image processing:

    [Update: thanks to Simon, a coherent scan of the two pages in question is here. What in the world the Google Books scanning process did, as shown above, remains a subject for further research.]

  12. q said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 7:53 pm

    And then there's "long time no see," supposedly from the Chinese 好久不見.

  13. Bill Walderman said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 10:39 pm

    Russian has an idiom like "fin che non giunga," which is confusing to English speakers. "Until" is rendered "poka nie," which means literally "while not," so that English "I slept until he came" would be something like "I slept while he did not come." I think that's the underlying semantics of "fin che non giunga il Re." I also suspect that may be something the mental process underlying Cindy's greeting Geoff. Somehow I suspect that Cindy sent her message from somewhere in the FSU.

  14. Karl Narveson said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 12:59 am

    One of our English idioms sounds a bit like cindy to a German speaker. Lent doesn't begin until February 25 this year. Our snow in Minneapolis probably won't melt till April. I didn't get up till nine. In German this would be something like dieses Jahr fängt die Fastezeit erst am 25. February anIn Minneapolis schmilzt der Schnee wahrscheinlich erst im Aprilich bin erst um neun Uhr aufgestanden, with no negatives in the construction. German tells you when the thing finally happens, English overtly reports how long the thing keeps not happening.

  15. Karl Narveson said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 1:07 am

    Sorry for the missing punctuation in my previous post: now I know that your site strips HTML tags.
    A further observation: our "not until" idiom is potentially ambiguous, as I realized when I saw a handwritten sign on a piece of machinery that was used to hoist boxes. "Do not elevate this hoist until it hits the ceiling." Excellent advice, if taken literally, but of course our assumption when we hear "not until" is that we are being told when to elevate the hoist, namely when it hits the ceiling. The advice should have been "Stop before it hits the ceiling".

  16. Karl Narveson said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 1:11 am

    To Bill Walderman: if the Russian idiom is "I slept while he did not come", the English idiom is "I didn't wake up till he came".

  17. dr pepper said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 3:13 am

    @Bill Walderman

    February 23, 2009 @ 10:39 pm

    Russian has an idiom like "fin che non giunga," which is confusing to English speakers. "Until" is rendered "poka nie," which means literally "while not," so that English "I slept until he came" would be something like "I slept while he did not come.

    Not a problem if you use a loop structure.


    is perfectly equivalent to


  18. Luciano said,

    July 24, 2009 @ 11:31 am

    There's the same thing in Czech: Je dlouho, že jsme se nepotkali. = It has been a long time since we did not meet.

  19. Julio Delgado said,

    March 7, 2010 @ 5:43 am

    In Spanish the same thing happens. We say "hace mucho que NO nos vemos", meaning "It's been a long time since we met". I live in Switzerland, in the French speaking region, but at work the official language is English. I constantly hear this "SINCE + negation" construction coming from French, Italians, and Spanish native speakers.

    I lived for two years in Ireland before moving to Switzerland, thus I'm "free" of this kind of mistake; have many others though!!

  20. Jonathon said,

    May 24, 2011 @ 6:52 pm

    Dr Pepper, as someone who understands both human and programming language, your comment made me smile. :)

    I guess one of the key differences between French and English pleonasm is that in French it's recommended, whereas in English it's deprecated. Take, for example, the perfectly valid French sentence Je n'ai jamais rien à faire. The literal English translation would be I never have nothing to do, when in fact it really means I never have anything to do, quite the opposite.

    In English, an even number of negative words make a sentence positive. We use this technique to politely dampen a strong negation (for example, I didn't dislike her singing means I didn't like her singing, but her singing is not the worst). In French, negatives all stack into one, and the sentence is negative no matter how many extra negative words you add. It seems like duplication to us native English-speakers, but the French probably wouldn't see it as redundant, since the idea is all negative with no affirmatives.

    All this talk about negatives reminds me of John Cleese's rant about "Caring less".

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