Should we stop people from not doing this?

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Jack Healy, "Defying Death in Utah Arches: A Thrill Too Far?", NYT 7/30/ 2014:

Even though his son died trying to swing, Mr. Stocking said he opposed any closing.  

“You can’t legislate people from not having fun,” he said. “They’re going to go find it one way or another.”

Ben Zimmer covered a similar case in "Don't be discouraged from not voting", 11/6/2012. He noted that "this particular misnegation crops up here and there online", by which he meant instances of the pattern "discourage X from not voting". If we broaden the pattern a bit, we find thousands of additional examples, e.g.

[link] I certainly understand we need to do our best to keep people from not living on the streets.
[link] Children always prefer snacks to taste, appealing aroma, they can buy anywhere and friends and enticement. So, to prevent them from not eating things like this becomes more difficult.
[link] There is nothing structurally that's keeping them from not continuing to build their operating efficiency and add to it.
[link] I don't mean to excuse men from not being more collaborative lovers.
[link] The vast majority of these threats come from within the family, thus keeping women from not reporting the aggressions.
[link] Negative stereotypes stop a lot of white women from not liking black men.
[link] How can I prevent my children from not deleting their history?
[linkThere is no way to prevent your child from not seeing inappropriate material.
[link] Having the It Factor allows you to keep people from not "fake listening" to you.
[link] We cannot just stop them from not playing games on the computer without a substitute for it.
[link] But it is double worse for teens because acne can actually hinder them from not realizing their dreams.
[link] I understand stopping a troll like individual from posting but to block them from not being able to view is something I do not understand at all.
[link] "Just knowing that there are cameras and there's an opportunity that you will be photographed when committing a crime down here would automatically deter them from not doing it," Cpl. Jeffery Brink said.
[link] “This is a very serious issue and against the law to prohibit people from not having children. I was shocked.”
[link] Therefore, they said, it was difficult to bar them from not carrying luggage beyond the prescribed weight.

I've previously offered four kinds of explanation for the various kinds of misnegations:

1) People get confused about multiple negatives and/or scalar predicates, etc.
2) The connection between English and modal logic may involve some unexpected ambiguities;
3) Negative concord is alive and well in English (or at least is stubbornly creeping in);
4) Odd things become idioms or at least verbal habits ("could care less"; "fail to miss"; "still unpacked").

My guess is that the phenomenon featured in this post are a combination of (1) and (3), but maybe for some people the result is (4).


  1. amandachen said,

    August 1, 2014 @ 6:42 am

    But is this one a misnegation: How can we stop people from not paying?

    [(myl) Oops. Removed from the list.]

  2. Anne said,

    August 1, 2014 @ 7:05 am

    I see this a lot online with "I miss not", too, eg, "I miss not seeing you!" "I miss not being able to go to the beach every day."

  3. Anne said,

    August 1, 2014 @ 7:08 am

    (I see you addressed this here:

  4. Scott McClure said,

    August 1, 2014 @ 8:11 am

    Before seeing this post I would have favored explanation (4) to cover the 'miss not VERBing' examples. My impression was that some speakers who would not typically use negative concord still say 'miss not VERBing', so the distinction between 'miss VERBing' and 'miss not VERBing' might come down to whether or not the you think the word 'miss' gives you negation on 'VERBing' for free. And it would be specific to the word 'miss'.

    But now I'm not so sure: 'discourage', 'excuse', 'keep', 'legislate', 'prevent', and 'stop' strike me as a pretty big and possibly open-ended set. I'm not sure that it makes sense to use explanation (4) on all these distinct lexical items, so I think there's an argument here for one of the other explanations, like (1).

  5. G Jones said,

    August 1, 2014 @ 8:27 am

    It's only misnegation if you assume "to legislate" means to bar someone from an action. But this was the whole point of the ACA case before SCOTUS–they ruled, rightly or wrongly, that government can legislate to force someone to do something.

    In that case, it's not a misnegation.

    A lot is also riding on how you understand "from" in his statement.

  6. Old Gobbo said,

    August 1, 2014 @ 9:13 am

    Unfortunately, I cannot find your last example in the pages on offer, probably through not trying hard enough, but in your post it reads:

    She knows you cannot follow her around wherever she goes and prevent her from not sticking to her plan to delay having sex until after high school.

    But if you took out the (second) ‘not’:

    She knows you cannot follow her around wherever she goes and prevent her from sticking to her plan to delay having sex until after high school.
    – this is clearly a description of some naughty person anxious to corrupt the innocent.

    It's a knotty issue, but are you sure that this is what the author was trying to say ?

    [(myl) The passage is on page 250 of the cited book — and you're right, both nots are needed, suggesting that my lack of careful comprehension is an additional argument for the "poor monkey brains" explanation. So I've removed the example.]

  7. Eric P Smith said,

    August 1, 2014 @ 10:07 am

    Following on from what G Jones says, "legislate from" does not exist in my ideolect. "Legislate against", yes.

  8. AEM said,

    August 1, 2014 @ 2:07 pm

    @G Jones
    All occurrences of "legislate from" in COCA are of the form "legislate from the bench", so it doesn't seem like a common usage. But if you treat the word "legislate" as meaning something like "prevent", then a sentence like “You can’t prevent people from not having fun,” sounds relatively normal (if misnegated).

  9. Gregory Kusnick said,

    August 1, 2014 @ 3:09 pm

    I noticed this variant on another blog just this morning:

    It was scrumptious, and I had to restrain myself from having only two helpings.

    Here "having only two" stands in for "not having more".

  10. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 1, 2014 @ 4:10 pm

    This is not "legislate from" it's "legislate people from" which is a different oddity because "legislate" is usually intransitive. It seems like most direct objects for legislate, as here, come up in negative contexts. Thus, it will be claimed that "you can't legislate morality" not that you can (although there may be political as well as syntactic/lexical factors accounting for why proponents of particular controversial legislation do not use "legislating morality" as the label for what they're trying to do). Just googling "legislate people" turns up on the first page of hits almost exclusively negative claims about what can be accomplished via legislation. We can't legislate people's attitudes; you can't legislate people not being stupid; you can't legislate people into alternative fuel vehicles. "Can we really legislate people to be kind?" is the sort of rhetorical question that feels designed to prompt a "no, we can't" as the expected answer. Et cetera. (The only exception on the first page of hits is from an apparently non-U.S. source arguing that the government of Jamaica should "legislate people's power," or perhaps People's Power, which might not be the same thing).

    If the speaker is using a particular construction where the verb can only be transitive if negated (are there other instances of this?), maybe that sets the stage for a higher risk of misnegation later in the sentence?

  11. AEM said,

    August 2, 2014 @ 3:02 pm

    I apologize for the error. I was looking at Eric P. Smith's comment, rather than the original quotation. (I probably shouldn't have commented in the first place, I don't know what I'm talking about.)

  12. Grover Jones said,

    August 4, 2014 @ 4:05 am

    Good catch. There, the meaning of "restrain from" is clear–and it's the opposite of what the writer meant.

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