Misnegation in the Encyclopedia Britannica

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Breffni O'Rourke has contributed a lovely specimen to our growing collection of cases where combinations of negations and scalar predicates leave writers and readers in a state of confusion. This one is from the EB section on the 14th and 15th centuries in Ireland (full path "Ireland:History:First centuries of English rule (1166-1600):The 14th and 15th centuries"):

Although both the Gaels and the Anglo-Irish had supported the Yorkist side in the Wars of the Roses, the Yorkist king Edward IV found them no less easy to subjugate than had his Lancastrian predecessors. Succeeding in 1468 in bringing about the attainder and execution for treason of Thomas, earl of Desmond, Edward was nevertheless obliged to yield to aristocratic power in Ireland. The earls of Kildare, who thereafter bore the title of lords deputy (for the English princes who were lords lieutenant), were in effect the actual rulers of Ireland until well into the 16th century.

If this confuses you, try substituting "more easy" or "easier" for "less easy".


  1. Sili said,

    April 26, 2009 @ 10:50 am

    OT but once again I discover the danger of trying to read fast. I was sure that headline said "miscegenation". Fascinating how the brain fills in the blanks.

  2. Christopher Henrich said,

    April 26, 2009 @ 11:05 am

    I think the quoted author made a sign error. (Physicists sometimes joke that a correct computation is one in which there are an even number of these.) If you make the recommended substitution, the first sentence becomes much clearer. But it is contradicted by the next two, which show that the Yorkist kings did not succeed in subjugating the Irish.

    [(myl) Exactly.]

  3. Maria said,

    April 26, 2009 @ 11:27 am

    How is it a contradiction? Finding them "no easier" to subjugate than his predecessors means that, just as his predecessors, Edward could not subjugate the Irish. It was a difficult thing for everyone.

    I also read miscegenation at first :)

    [(myl) It's not a contradiction, it's a confusion. ]

  4. marie-lucie said,

    April 26, 2009 @ 11:35 am

    But the text says "no less easy", not "no easier".

    [(myl) Exactly. "No more easy" and "no easier" make sense, and mean what the writer had in mind. "No less easy" is backwards — the writer got confused, just as people do in cases like "No head injury is too trivial to ignore". A sign error, as Christopher Henrich put it.]

    misnegation rather than miscegenation

    I made the mistake too at first (that comes from adults reading in "whole language" fashion and substituting a familiar term for an unfamiliar one which looks similar).

    I have always wondered whether the aversion to "miscegenation" was not partly due to misunderstanding of the "mis" at the beginning of the word, causing it to have a negative meaning rather than simply one of "mixing".

  5. Richard said,

    April 26, 2009 @ 12:50 pm

    Confusion, yes, but I think this is actually different from some of the other examples we have seen before of ending up with the wrong polarity (or sim.). Many of those were either plain wrong (i.e. can't mean what the speaker intended) or examples of cryptanalysis; in my view, this example is unfortunate but falls under neither category, which makes it a particularly interesting addition to the collection.

    Here, I suspect there is a lexicalised construction in use, 'no less X (adj.) than Y', that conventionally implicates 'as X as Y'. On this reading, Edward found them as easy to subjugate as his predecessors had, that is to say, not at all easy. The discrepancy between literal and implicated meanings is unfortunate for this writer (though it is not a general consequence of the construction, appearing when being used in this quasi-ironic fashion), and it is the discrepancy that is the obvious cause of the confusion. I don't, therefore, think it is straightforwardly a sign error. Rather, the writer intended the implicated meaning and entirely overlooked the alternative.

    Of course such an example is 'wrong' insofar as it indeed creates confusion that ought perhaps to be avoided in this kind of prose: a good copy editor would weed out this kind of possible confusion, but as we know only too well, it's (no) easier (or should that be more difficult?) to overlook (?spot) these than … (ouch, my head now hurts, can't work out what to do next, arrrgh!)

  6. bianca steele said,

    April 26, 2009 @ 1:01 pm

    I wonder whether the real error is a failure to understand the definition of "subjugate." The "actual Irish" already were "subjugated" — by the standing aristocracy. If Henry were trying to put the Irish under subjugation, then, his work would have been quite easy. He'd have had only to acknowledge their existing subjugation under their presumably native aristocracy. Then it makes perfect sense. Whereas, given these definitions, the "correct" grammar would turn out to be nonsense.

  7. bianca steele said,

    April 26, 2009 @ 1:02 pm

    Sorry, I meant Edward, not Henry.

  8. Trent said,

    April 26, 2009 @ 2:17 pm

    Perhaps I'm not typical, but I have no problem understanding the intent of the EB writer. The phrase in question strikes me as idiomatic and a form of understatement. I also have no trouble with "No head injury is too trivial to ignore."

    Is there any evidence that readers in general are confused by such phrases and sentences?

    [(myl) As first pointed out by Wason and Reich 30 years ago (“A Verbal Illusion,” Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 31 (4): 591-97, 1979), these phrases are like the verbal equivalent of optical illusions.

    No doubt you also react like others in estimating the shading of squares A and B in this classical illusion. You can only see the truth — that A and B are the same shade — if you defeat your normal visual system, say by looking at A and B through two holes in a piece of cardboard that blocks the rest of the figure.

    Similarly, you can only understand what is happening in "No head injury is too trivial to ignore" if you stop reacting to it intuitively, and inspect its meaning analytically by taking the pieces apart and seeing how they fit together.

    Why does any of this matter? Because we can sometimes understand more about how a system works when we investigate how and why it fails. ]

  9. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    April 26, 2009 @ 3:48 pm

    I think Richard at 12:50 pm may have a bit of a point. An expression like "X is no less P than Y" is sometimes used informally as a set phrase, with the intended meaning "X is pretty much the same level of P as Y". Interpreted in this way, "X is no less P than Y" is essentially synonymous with "X is no more P than Y".

    I remember writing an essay where I used the construction "X is no more of a P than Y is" with the intended meaning "X, for practical purposes, is around the same level of P as Y is." I didn't really realize what I had done until later, when my writing was criticized and I was interpreted as literally claiming that X was located at a spot less than or equal to Y on a scale of P-ness.

  10. Mark F. said,

    April 26, 2009 @ 4:52 pm

    This comment about the phrase "not unseldom" in Pride and Prejudice may be of interest.

  11. Trent said,

    April 26, 2009 @ 5:00 pm


    I understand what you are saying; I just wonder how many people actually are confused by the phrase and sentence I cited. I do understand that in some instances confusion is possible — I suppose the famous "couldn't care less/could care less" issue is an example.

    But if we grasp a meaning intuitively, isn't that good enough?
    [(myl) That's a complicated question in general — but it's not the question that's at issue in this little collection of verbal illusions.]

    I think everyone gets the intent of a sentence such as "I don't need no stinkin' medal," though many prescriptivists would argue that the negatives negate themselves and descriptivists would argue that the construction is time honored, was common in Chaucer, etc..

    [(myl) Negative concord is a different matter (though some problems with multiple-negative sentences may mean that English has never entirely stopped being a negative-concord language).]

    Or to extend this further — an idiomatic expression such as "let the cat out of the bag" makes no literal sense in most contexts that it is used, but most English speakers understand the intent.

    [(myl) The interpretation of idioms and metaphors is again a different matter.]

    Mark, I'm really not trying to be difficult here; I just don't understand why a descriptivist would object to "No head injury is too trivial to ignore" since such constructions are used all the time with no confusion. Again, I grant in some instances confusion is possible or even likely.

    [(myl) What I think that you're missing is that the point is not to "object" to a verbal illusion but to note and analyze it.

    Most cases of this kind have an erratic effect on their audience ("fills a much-needed gap"; "don't fail to miss"; "impossible to underestimate"; etc.), and so it might be prudent to avoid them except in jest. But the point here is not to give stylistic advice.]

    I appreciate the impulse to take such utterances apart to see what is happening, but that is quite a different thing from saying all such utterances are confusing.

    [(myl) What I meant by writing that such phrases "leave writers and readers in a state of confusion" is that they make it hard for writers and readers to perceive that they are interpreting the phrases to mean (or implicate) something quite different from what they literally do mean (or implicate).]

  12. bianca steele said,

    April 26, 2009 @ 6:34 pm

    myl: these phrases are like the verbal equivalent of optical illusions

    Surely visual perception is much, much better understood than verbal "perception"?

    [(myl) The analog of visual perception would be auditory perception, and I think that the level of understanding is not wildly different between those two areas, overall. Speech perception is better understood — or at least much more thoroughly studied — than (say) the visual perception of facial expressions and body posture is. And why the scare quotes on verbal "perception"?]

    we sometimes can understand more about how a system works when we investigate how and why it fails

    This makes sense, I think, when we're reverse-engineering something — and probably when we already have a good idea what its parts are and how they, in turn work (or don't). It makes less sense for designed systems, where there was an architect who drew up a plan and had the system constructed to his order.

    [(myl) This isn't always true — we've learned quite a bit about how Google's algorithms work by observing how they fail, for example. But in any case, why is this relevant? Or do you think that speech and language are a designed system? ]

  13. acilius said,

    April 26, 2009 @ 7:08 pm

    This is a fascinating topic. I wonder how much of our ability to understand the intended meaning of these constructions despite the apparent sense of the the words is really "intuitive" and how much is based on our familiarity with conventions we haven't learned to notice. Surely the way to settle that question would be to make a comparative study of negation of scalar predicates in different languages. Has such work been done? Every time you post on this I google phrases like "Negation of Scalar Predicates," but I never find anything.

    [(myl) The theory put forward by Wason and Reich ("A Verbal Illusion,” Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 31 (4): 591-97, 1979) was that when there's a clearly preferred meaning, people tend to jump to it without (so to speak) doing the calculation that should get them there (but sometimes wouldn't). They did some experiments to test this idea, which were successful (as I recall) in establishing that the relative plausibility of different interpretations plays a role. There's also pretty clearly an effect of the difficulty of the constructions involved, and perhaps some inchoate idiom-formation processes as well.

    To find some literature on this topic, you could start by checking out Google Scholar to see who has cited Wason and Reich, and who has cited the papers that cite them, etc. ]

  14. acilius said,

    April 26, 2009 @ 8:01 pm

    Oh, WASON and Reich! No wonder I couldn't find any relevant citations searching for "Watson Reich"! Another illusion, I suppose.

  15. bianca steele said,

    April 26, 2009 @ 8:47 pm

    why the scare quotes on verbal "perception"?

    To me, "perception" implies raw sensory data, not processed in any conscious way. I don't know whether this matches how psychologists think of it.

    [(myl) The wikibooks Intro to Psych page on Sensation and Perception sez "Sensation is the input about the physical world that is produced by our sensory receptors. Perception is the process by which the mind selects, organizes, and interprets sensations." This is roughly how the terms are used by psychologists, in my experience. ]

    do you think that speech and language are a designed system?

    Presumably parts are not designed, parts are designed, parts are intentional, parts are emergent? Certainly the EB article you quoted from was designed.

    Sorry, my second paragraph doesn't make sense; I typed it during a break in cooking dinner. In the second sentence, I meant precisely that language is not like Google Search, which we know to have been developed by human beings for a particular purpose. (I don't think the Google engineers need you to tell them how it works either, which is very different from telling them whether or not it meets your needs, something it's reasonable to expect they might not know beforehand a hundred percent of the time. But in a hundred years, when they are all dead, and Google itself is defunct, and nobody understand anymore how to read Java code, looking for the ways the thing breaks is one of the ways people might figure out how it once worked, way back when.)

  16. acilius said,

    April 26, 2009 @ 9:06 pm

    @Mark Liberman: Now that I've searched using the correct spelling of Wason's name, I've found a number of relevant articles, including one written by a person whose office is about 20 feet from mine. I would be embarrassed to have been ignorant of this, except that we're in different departments. He's a psychologist, I'm in classical languages. Besides, he wrote that article several years ago, when my office was in a different location. In those days, he was almost 50 feet away from me. Of course I couldn't be expected to keep up with scholarship conducted in such faraway regions. Thanks for repeating the citation until I noticed the spelling!

  17. Jonathan Lundell said,

    April 26, 2009 @ 9:25 pm

    I looked at a dozen or two cases of "no less easy" in Google Books. Most of them were correct. But most of the correct uses were (more or less) of the form "easy to X and no less easy to Y", which is makes matters pretty clear.

    Without that help, I notice that it's often difficult to figure out whether a mistake has been made, and conclude that in those cases, it would be a kindness to one's readers to write "no harder" instead of "no less easy".

  18. Don Campbell said,

    April 27, 2009 @ 12:51 am


    Don't feel too bad – I was also reading Watson and Reich each time Mark mentioned it until your capitalised post, so thank you for pointing the illusion out to me too.

  19. Mark Liberman said,

    April 27, 2009 @ 6:48 am

    Peter Wason was also the inventor of the Wason selection task, the 2-4-6 task, and the THOG task. He was (I think) the coiner of the term "confirmation bias".

  20. Seth Grimes said,

    April 27, 2009 @ 12:02 pm

    I love your word "misnegation."

    It seems a play on the Hebrew מתנגד, misneged (Ashkenazi pronunciation), someone who opposes. While that work is applied particularly to an 18th-century opponent of emergent Hasidic Judaism, it does have broader use. Mark, did you by chance have this play in mind?

    [(myl) No — but thanks for making me seem wittier than I actually am. ]

  21. Andrew Ferguson said,

    April 28, 2009 @ 4:21 pm

    I found the "no less easy to subjugate" quite natural to read and understand. Perhaps it's another case where the reality could not be further from the truth?

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