Logical prescriptivism

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Rick Detorie's One Big Happy for 10/27/2008:

We find it amusing when an apparently logical generalization about word formation goes badly wrong, as Joe's idiosyncratic inference does in this strip.

A couple of days ago, Eugene Volokh discussed a much more widespread case of failed linguistic analogy: "Hisself, My Son, and a Thought About Prescriptivism":

My five-and-a-half-year-old used ["hisself"] a few days ago, and I gently corrected him. We say "himself," I said, not "hisself." I'm a descriptivist when it comes to determining what is "correct"; but I want my child to learn not just any correct way of speaking, but the way that is going to best help him get ahead in life, which sometimes mean the mode of speaking that is most satisfying to self-described "purists." […]

But of course I also wanted my boy to get a sense of the patterns in the language, so I pointed out the analogies — "herself," "themselves," "myself." Wait a minute! It's "myself," not "meself," and "ourselves," not "usselves"; the first-person reflexive uses the possessive ("my" and "our") followed by "self" or "selves." But the others use the objective ("him," "her," "them") and not the possessive.

And what is it that tells us that "myself" and "himself" are right, while "meself" and "hisself" are wrong? Not any supposed inner logic of the language, it seems to me, but simply usage: "Myself" and "himself" are standard among educated English speakers, at least outside narrow regional dialects, and "meself" and "hisself" are not. What is right to say in English is what educated English speakers say.

This is a cogent explanation of a point that you'd think would be clear to any rational adult who has thought about the analysis of language. But as Prof. Volokh observes, the argument still has to be made:

[W]hen I hear prescriptivists argue using what I think of as "logical prescriptivism" — this spelling or usage is right and that is wrong because of some inner logic of the word, or because of an analogy to other words — I remember examples like this.

(If you're skeptical that any well-informed people really do believe in "logical prescriptivism", see "The theology of phonology", 1/2/2004.)

In the case of word formation and its connections to sound and sense, logic is an especially unreliable guide. And of course the English writing system is a complex pattern of overlapping historical layers with sporadic intrusions of reform, for which the appropriate mode of analysis is more geological than logical.

But as we move to larger units — phrases, sentences, rhetorical or narrative structures — the combinatoric explosion of possibilities makes it less and less likely that any particular pattern can have idiosyncratic properties. Logic tells us that some sort of regular and productive system must mostly take over.

And since different languages may differ syntactically while supporting the same patterns of logical reasoning, this grammatical system can't simply be the logic that we use in reasoning about it. (Though there's an old and seductive idea that all linguistic diversity might somehow be just the logical consequence of lexical differences.)

Linguists have been analyzing and trying to model these grammatical systems for about 2,500 years now, and the best models are pretty good. But it remains true, as Horace told us, that even the best grammatical models must defer to usus / quem penes arbitrium est et ius et norma loquendi ("custom, in whose power is the decision and right and standard of language").

This is a sadly undemocratic fact, since it means that no reliable short-cut, in the form of a short list of simple rules, is available to those trying to master a standard language. There's no real alternative to doing a lot of reading and listening.

[Of course, some people are just confused, even about phrase-sized patterns; and in those cases, we happily (and correctly) prescribe a dose of logic. ]


  1. marie-lucie said,

    May 25, 2009 @ 9:01 am

    In "meself" my understanding is that the socalled "e" is [I], reflecting the unstressed development of ME long [i:] instead of stressed [aj] [see earlier discussion of Pope and Blakes's usage in final position]. Dialects which have "meself" also have "me wife", etc in which the "me" is a form of "my".

    [(myl) Quasi-regular (and otherwise opaque) form-meaning relationships are usually the residue of repeated layers of sound change, analogy, borrowing, dialect mixture, and so on, and this case is no exception. The story of the English pronominal system is a fascinating one, full of connections outside of language to aspects of political and social history. ]

  2. bianca steele said,

    May 25, 2009 @ 9:14 am

    Prof. Liberman, you say recognition of custom is a "sadly undemocratic fact." Doesn't this amount to a substantive (and thus not purely logical) proposition about the nature of custom, in other words that custom is undemocratic? And doesn't this mean that a correct valuation of custom will be unavailable to those who elevate pure logic, mathematics and scientific thinking as the highest goal for humans?

    [(myl) All I really meant is that mastery of a prestige dialect (or a formal written register) is easier for those who grow up speaking (and reading) it, and takes more work for those who don't. This means that children of social elites are automatically endowed with a certain amount of cultural capital, which tends to subvert the democratic premise of equal opportunity.

    This fact imposes an especially high barrier for those aspects of elite dialects that can't easily be acquired from books, for example the traditional distribution of "broad a" in words like pass and gas. (See the line in George Frazier's Harvard Blues, recorded by Count Basie, and briefly discussed here.) That was something that you just knew, if you went one of the right schools, but would be hard-pressed to learn otherwise.]

  3. Dance said,

    May 25, 2009 @ 10:12 am

    When I was tutoring a 2nd grader in reading (a child of African immigrants), I found myself saying things like "excellent! you applied the general rule perfectly! but for *this* word, English is wrong and doesn't follow the rule" ALL THE TIME. I have to wonder if it's possible that learning English might actively stifle the type of intelligence that identifies and applies an abstract pattern.

    [(myl) I don't think that (spoken) English is at all unusual in its degree of quasi-regularity; but the English writing system is certainly less consistent in its letter-to-sound correspondences than many others. Still, it can be taught (implicitly or explicitly) as a set of conditional sub-regularities, which is not a bad model for many other sorts of rationality.]

  4. Nada said,

    May 25, 2009 @ 10:24 am

    What is the opposite of "nobody", anyway? Isn't it variously "somebody", "anybody" and "everybody"?

  5. Franz Bebop said,

    May 25, 2009 @ 10:58 am

    @Dance: I have to wonder if it's possible that learning English might actively stifle the type of intelligence that identifies and applies an abstract pattern.

    Maybe, maybe not. But not all patterns are consistent, and it takes some intelligence to work with inconsistent patterns, too. Perhaps a bit more intelligence. Certainly it requires more memory. People have quite a bit of memory available to them.

  6. mollymooly said,

    May 25, 2009 @ 11:43 am

    Dialects which have "meself" also have "me wife", etc in which the "me" is a form of "my".

    And "be" for "by", as in "begorrah" and "bejasus". But this is all only for unstressed or weak form, at least in Ireland. Stressed "my", "myself", "by" have the PRICE vowel, not the FLEECE or KIT vowels.

    The core observation stands: whereas "hisself" is nonstandard morphology, "meself" is [merely] nonstandard accent.

  7. scratchdaddy said,

    May 25, 2009 @ 12:04 pm

    "combinatoric"? That's new one for me. But I like it.

    Long live neologicatoric polysyllabia!

    [(myl) Enjoy! And many happy returns! ]

  8. marie-lucie said,

    May 25, 2009 @ 12:10 pm

    @Dance: it's possible that learning English might actively stifle the type of intelligence that identifies and applies an abstract pattern

    In this case, English speakers everywhere would be at a great intellectual disadvantage compared to others, except for the fact that most natural languages have a fair amount of inconsistency because of various historical factors. Children between the ages of approximately 3 to 5 years old typically identify and apply the most common abstract patterns of word-formation, such as how to form the past tense of English verbs: add -ed, and only later do they realize that forms like "hit" instead of "hitted" are not wrong but just the way older children and adults speak. It does not mean that their capacity to identify abstract patterns has been stifled, as English speakers happily and unsefl-consciously continue to apply the suffix -ed to newly formed verbs.

    @mollymooly: Thank you for the extra examples. I agree with you. The accounts of the Great Vowel Shift that I have seen neglect to say that the diphthongation of ME [i:] occurred under stress, but in unstressed position I think that there must have been some fluctuation, and in short , generally unstressed words such as by and my some dialects still have not diphthongized but simply shortened the vowel to [i] (and this shortening may have happened before the shift anyway).

  9. Ray Girvan said,

    May 25, 2009 @ 12:49 pm

    Joe's idiosyncratic inference

    Very similar to Bill & Ted's "Yes way".

  10. Sili said,

    May 25, 2009 @ 12:58 pm

    "Mylord" and "mylady" are unstressed even in the standard dialect, I believe – or is that an upstairs/downstairs split?

  11. marie-lucie said,

    May 25, 2009 @ 1:15 pm

    @Sili: Excellent examples! I think that this must be a leftover from the "unshifted when unstressed" rule, perhaps preserved by the "downstairs" people as the "upstairs" ones would not use such terms.

  12. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 25, 2009 @ 4:06 pm

    @myl, the "broad a" supposedly characteristic of a certain sort of posh American speech 75 years ago seems now to be basically obsolete. Even in the '30's, however, it wasn't inaccessible to non-elite kids, because it was the way actors and actresses playing "posh" characters in mass-market Hollywood movies talked. (Madonna at one point revived that "mid-Atlantic" accent, but I think it mostly made people think she was ridiculous rather than posh.)

    It still may be very helpful to a child to have parents and/or schoolmates who speak the standard rather than non-standard dialect of American English. But that has almost as much to do with region as class — in the Great Basin I take it that the poorer kids have something close to "standard" pronunciation and in the Deep South the rich kids do not (a Southerner may be able to infer class differences between other Southerners based on speech, but they'll all pretty much sound like rubes to us Yankees). I do not think that American English has at present a true "prestige" or elite dialect native only to a small single-digit percentage of the population as opposed to a standard dialect native to some reasonable double-digit percentage of the population. Certainly by the time I was a elite-college freshman (more than four decades after the Basie band recorded that song), I did not perceive the kids who came from fancy New England boarding schools to be speaking in a distinctive dialect inaccessible to me as a graduate of a public high school in a non-socialite portion of the Northeast Corridor. There were a few lexical/cultural differences (they were more likely to already know what "Head of the Charles" referred to) but those were transient.

    [(myl) The problem with trying to learn a "posh" accent from the movies is that the sample of words you get is quite limited. That may be fine for systematic differences in sound, but it doesn't work for cases where a large class of words that all have the same sound in your dialect are split unpredictably into two classes in the elite dialect — the result will almost certainly be mistakes, most typically in the direction of hypercorrection.

    In any case, what I said about unpredictable pronunciation differences applies mostly in situations where a specific elite mode of speech has significant value, as in the heyday of RP in Britain. A regional — or even class or ethnic — accent is not quite as great a handicap in the U.S. today as it once was, though I think there's more residual prejudice than most people like to admit. It comes out into the open more easily in the case of groups that it's OK to stigmatize, like white southerners, but matched guise experiments uncover it in a wide range of cases.

    But familiarity with the details of formal written English and its spoken approximations remains important for most paths to success in the U.S. today; and knowing that it's "himself" and not "hisself" is just one of thousands of pieces of knowledge that go into that. Someone who grows up speaking a different variety of the language, and doesn't start reading a lot by junior high school, has a lot of ground to make up. And the fact that generalizing from partial knowledge is often wrong makes it harder. ]

  13. Christian Becker-Asano said,

    May 25, 2009 @ 9:48 pm

    This is a very enlightening discussion for me as a German, who lives in a foreign country (Japan) and meets English-speaking people of different origins together with their different dialects. Just yesterday we discussed an interesting question concerning logic and Japanese language (a language, which most of us here are starting to try learning, if I might say so):
    Take look at the following English sentences:
    (a) "I don't think it is raining." versus (b) "I think it doesn't rain."
    At least in the form that I learned to express myself in Japanese so far, I learned that I might only say:
    (b) "(Watashi wa [I]) ame [rain] ga [subject-marker] furutte [rain] inai [not to be] to [particle] omoimasu [thinking]." (My Japanese teacher may forgive me, if I made some mistakes here, but in principal this should be close enough to the correct translation.)
    So, what is the point here?
    Well, (at least) when using the "to omoimasu" form, it is not possible/allowed to change this sentence into:
    (a) "[..] furutte [rain] imasu [to be] to [particle] omoimasen [not thinking]."

    When thinking in terms of logic, we came to the point to compare the following statements in predicate logics:
    (a) not Think(Raining) versus (b) Think(not Raining)
    and imagined a Japanese wanting to say something like:
    "I don't _think_ it is raining, I _know_ it!"
    How does he/she do this? The following would mean something different (and somewhat stupid), we think ;):
    "I think it is not raining, I know it is raining."

    What do you think or know or not think but guess about this?

    Christian Becker-Asano

  14. Evan said,

    May 25, 2009 @ 10:00 pm

    > But the others use the objective ("him," "her," "them") and not the possessive.

    – "her" is the possessive as well as the objective.

    – the second person uses the possessive.

    – "Hisself" and "theirsel{f,ves}" are both well-established, if not preferred (the latter perhaps an attempt at a gender-neutral third person singular).

    So it appears to me that the objective case is the outlier (contrary to what Mr Volokh seemed to imply). Not really an important point but perhaps helpful if you're just learning the language and trying to memorize the smallest set of rules and exceptions that will describe the language you want to speak.

  15. Karen said,

    May 25, 2009 @ 10:58 pm

    The third person uses the objective case, unless it's split for emphasis (his own self, their own selves). First and second use possessive. "Her" obscures the pattern since "her" is both forms.

    FWIW, I grew up hearing "hisself" and "theirself" but I never heard "usself" and doubt I heard "meself" – the vagaries of pronunciation mean that I can't be sure. Of course, I also grew up hearing "hisn, hern, ourn, yourn" and "theirn", so YMM considerably vary.

  16. Craig Russell said,

    May 25, 2009 @ 11:23 pm

    I teach Latin to high-schoolers, and last week, as I was trying to cram in an introduction of the reflexive pronoun before the end of the school year, I was informed by a ninth-grader that "itself" is not a word. He interrupted me as I was giving 'itself' as a possible translation of the Latin form 'se' to say that it's "technically not grammatically correct" to say 'itself'. When I asked him why he thought that, he said he learned it in English class and had read it in a book at home, "written by a professor at NC State, so I think he would know more about it than you do."

    After class I took him to the English teacher, who agreed with me that there's nothing wrong with 'itself', and asked if maybe he was thinking of her instruction not to use the form like 'hisself'. But he still insists that he has a book at home (written by an NC State professor who knows much more about language than I do, apparently) that contains this rule. I asked him if I could see the book (thinking maybe that he is misinterpreting a statement such as "write 'itself' rather than 'itsself'" or something), but he has not as yet remembered to bring the book in–though he still insists that that's what the book says.

    With many students I would assume that they were just stirring up trouble for the sake of it, but I don't think this particular boy, annoying as he may be, would say something like this if he didn't believe it to be true. Any ideas as to what prescriptive command he's (mis)interpreting?

    (I won't go into the whole theory of grammar that he and every other student in our school has that says that 'grammar' means knowing which words or phrases are marked with the scarlet A that means they should never be said or written. After spending two years trying to teach these kids Latin, I have come to realize how hard it is to get a bunch of teenagers — who aren't really listening to more than one out of five things you say — to look at any topic in a sophisticated way; it's much easier to get them to memorize lists of 'alwayses' and 'nevers'.)

  17. michael farris said,

    May 26, 2009 @ 3:34 am

    "I grew up hearing "hisself" and "theirself" but I never heard "usself" and doubt I heard "meself""

    Yeah me too (with theirselves instead of theirself and us'uns and them'uns though those weren't as common). hisself comes pretty easily to my tongue (to the point where I sometimes have to consciously not use it) but 'meself' doesn't. If I use hisself then myself will probably have [a] (just like I'm and I'll where the [I] glide often disappears

  18. Aaron Davies said,

    May 26, 2009 @ 7:57 am

    my favorite pronoun is "ourself", the reflexive form of the royal "we".

  19. Chris said,

    May 26, 2009 @ 9:36 am

    Take look at the following English sentences:
    (a) "I don't think it is raining." versus (b) "I think it doesn't rain."

    The short answer is that "don't think" is part of an idiomatic pattern of negation-raising in English, which is illogical and not necessarily applicable in other languages generally. (Although if you're a German and think of its absence as a feature of Japanese… does something similar occur in German? How would you express "I think it's not raining" in German?) It occurs mainly with verbs of belief, appearance, perception, etc.

    In some cases, the raised and unraised negative have different meanings: "he didn't say he'd go" and "he said he wouldn't go", for example.


    P.S. I also agree with Nada that "nobody" has no well-defined opposite.

  20. Arnold Zwicky said,

    May 26, 2009 @ 11:10 am

    One consequence of prescriptivist appeals to "logic" in usage matters is that plenty of people come to believe that standard variants are standard because they're intrinsically superior, and these people then are puzzled by claims that forms that make perfect sense by analogical reasoning are in fact non-standard. Here's some of what I said on the matter (with respect to reflexive pronouns) last year:

    I have no problem in labeling variants as non-standard, if they in fact are, and I've done it many, many times here on Language Log (an awful lot of the variants I study are non-standard) — with the result that I get a certain amount of e-mail from people who are shocked by some of this labeling: how, they write, can I say that some variant is non-standard, when it makes so much SENSE? Why should theirselves be non-standard? Why should themself used with singular antecedents (Anyone who shoots themself in the foot shouldn't be trusted with a gun) be non-standard? Why, in fact, should theirself in this use be non-standard (in fact, doubly so)? All I can say to these correspondents is: it just IS. (Though in the case of themself it might not be so for much longer.)

    More on themself here.

  21. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 26, 2009 @ 1:07 pm

    1. Note also that it's "thyself" rather than "theeself." But aren't pronoun systems cross-linguistically (at least in IE?) famously irregular, just like the conjugation of "to be"? So a particularly odd place to look for "logic."

    2. Is there an empirical basis for thinking "hisself" and "theirself" regularly occur together (i.e. an adult speaker who uses one is highly likely to use the other)? I don't have an impressionistic sense that they necessarily do, but my impressions may not be worth much. If not, it's not entirely obvious to me whether hisself is the "logical overgeneralization" his + self, as opposed to, say, hi'self, with the m having been mislaid along the way historically. That a toddler trying to generalize might come up with his + self by analogy doesn't necessarily establish that that's the path by which a stable dialect spoken by adults acquired hisself.

    3. On "posh" dialect, my basic point was that the U.S. today is strikingly different from the U.K. in the bad old days of RP superiority. In terms of the political implications, I don't think that American kids who grow up speaking a reasonably standard dialect (or being able to read and write the standard variety even if they have a noticeble variant accent when speaking) are overwhelmingly the children of "social elites" (unless elite is defined very broadly) or even necessarily the children of those parents who themselves speak a standard dialect. E.g., the American-born children of non-elite East Asian immigrants (e.g. those with parents running dry cleaners and bodegas rather than holding university or high-tech jobs) seem to be doing fine at acquiring the standard dialect of American English. Ditto the American-born children of South Asian immigrants (maybe more interesting because the immigrant parents may themselves be native or near-native English speakers, but don't particularly seem to be transmitting the distinctive qualities of Indian English to their kids). Parents with thick Southern or Brooklyn accents who raise kids in a different part of the country don't tend to pass on the accent in undiluted form to the next generation, etc. It is unlikely that one will be able to infer from Prof. Volokh's children's speech patterns that their father was born in the late and unlamented Ukrainian SSR. (Maybe BVE/AAVE is more persistent across generations. One could hypothesize a number of reasons for this.)

    So leaving aside the rather Jacobin implications of Prof. Liberman's original passing suggestion that social custom, linguistic variation, and the inevitable inequality of children's endowments (whether genetic, economic, or cultural) are barriers to democracy, I think we're not doing that badly as a nation on the linguistic side of social mobility, with the *possible* exception (where I just don't know the empirical data well enough to comment with confidence) of bilingual education for Hispanic students ending up in practice as a trap rather than a mechanism of long-term integration. (There are obviously also persistent white/black gaps in educational achievement, but I don't know how much weight to assign to dialect variation as a causal factor there other than to be skeptical that it's dominant.)

  22. rpsms said,

    May 26, 2009 @ 1:48 pm

    Clearly, the opposite of nobody is "not nobody!" It seems like the question is anticipating "every" as the opposite of "none." Somewhat ambiguous questions like this were infuriating when it involved a testing environment.

    I come from upstate new york, live in south jersey, and work in Philadelphia. I definately have a reflexive (negative) association with the thickest of accents from all three regions (which actually amounts to maybe 6 major subtypes). Personal experience has shown that such reactions are typically unfounded, but also that certain people I have encountered most definately make use of such class markers.

  23. Bloix said,

    May 26, 2009 @ 6:23 pm

    "a Southerner may be able to infer class differences between other Southerners based on speech, but they'll all pretty much sound like rubes to us Yankees"

    Oh my goodness, no. There are upper south accents that to Northerners are not merely intelligent and educated but also friendly, amused, and inviting. Think of Bob Edwards (Kentucky). And there's a Virginia accent that is so mild that you barely recognize that it's a southern accent at all, until you start to wonder why you like listening to this person so much.

    And even a Texas or Okie accent can convey intelligence and trustworthiness when spoken by the right person – Bill Moyers, say, or Dan Rather.

  24. Ellen said,

    May 27, 2009 @ 12:04 am

    I've been presuming hisself is pronounced like his + self, with a z sound followed by an s sound. J.W. Brewer I see understands hisself to have the z sound in his devoiced and thus not differentiated from the s in self. So, how is it actually pronounced? Or does it vary?

  25. Terry Collmann said,

    May 27, 2009 @ 6:14 am

    JC Brewer: Note also that it's "thyself" rather than "theeself."

    But (see Karen's comment) "to thine own self be true".

  26. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 27, 2009 @ 7:40 am

    @Ellen, yes I think of "hisself" as lacking the voiced z sound, but that's not based on rigorous data collection — if anything I've probably encountered hisself more in writing (as indicating that a character was speaking "dialect") than in speech, so my perception may be off.

    @ Terry C., thyself -> thine own self is just a result of "own" having an initial vowel, following the same now obsolete pattern as "mine eyes have seen the glory." See John 5:30 in the KJV ("I can of mine own self do nothing.") But in the other direction thine own self wouldn't necessarily predict thyself as opposed to theeself, because "his own self" is consistent with "himself."

  27. Mark Liberman said,

    May 27, 2009 @ 8:07 am

    J.W. Brewer is of course right that it's "thyself" rather than "theeself.

    But here's something interesting. In addtion to 15,869 instances of "thyself", Literature Online finds 19 instances of "theeself", all from 19th century drama or from dialogue in 19th century novels. And the authors include Dickens, Trollope, and Twain.

    From Nicholas Nickleby (where there are two other hits):

    "Brout thee!" replied John. "Why didn't'ee punch his head, or lay theeself doon and kick, and squeal out for the pollis? I'd ha' licked a doozen such as him when I was yoong as thee. But thee be'est a poor broken-doon chap," said John, sadly, "and God forgi' me for bragging ower yan o' his weakest creeturs."

    From Framley Parsonage (where there is one other example):

    "Come in, Robin postman, and warm theeself awhile," said Jemima the cook, pushing a stool a little to one side, but still well in front of the big kitchen fire.

    "Well, I dudna jist know how it'll be. The wery 'edges 'as eyes and tells on me in Silverbridge, if I so much as stops to pick a blackberry."

    "There bain't no hedges here, mon, nor yet no blackberries; so sit thee down and warm theeself. That's better nor blackberries, I'm thinking," and she handed him a bowl of tea with a slice of buttered toast.

    From The Gilded Age:

    "He doesn't say exactly what it is," said Ruth a little dubiously, "but it's something about land and railroads, and thee knows, father, that fortunes are made nobody knows exactly how, in a new country."

    "I should think so, you innocent puss, and in an old one too. But Philip is honest, and he has talent enough, if he will stop scribbling, to make his way. But thee may as well take care of theeself, Ruth, and not go dawdling along with a young man in his adventures, until thy own mind is a little more settled what thee wants."

    So were there actually 19th-century English variants that settled on theeself? Or were these authors just unreliable observers of the variants that they assigned to their characters? The second option seems more likely to me in this case, but I could well be wrong.

  28. Dave Errington said,

    May 28, 2009 @ 10:02 am

    @Mark Liberman: “So were there actually 19th-century English variants that settled on theeself? Or were these authors just unreliable observers of the variants that they assigned to their characters? The second option seems more likely to me in this case, but I could well be wrong.”

    Owt's possible, but the first two quotes, at least, are using non-standard spelling to represent dialect pronunciations of standard words (“doon”, “pollis”, “yoong”), so I'd assume they're doing the same with “theeself”, and that the vowel sound of “thy” changed to something like “thee” in an unstressed position, like me/my that marie-lucie referred to in the first comment.

    That's certainly the case nowadays, at any rate – it sounds like a schwa when I say thyself in my native (Geordie) accent (at least, I think it does), but I'm pretty sure I've seen it written as “thisself” and “thaself” before.

  29. tablogloid said,

    May 28, 2009 @ 7:59 pm

    methinks by myself

  30. Christian Becker-Asano said,

    July 13, 2009 @ 1:19 am


    @Chris: Thanks for your enlightening comment! In German we indeed have a way to express that we "don't think it is raining": Ich denke nicht, dass es regnet." in contrast to "Ich denke, dass es nicht regnet."
    But you are right with saying that this can be judged as "an idiomatic pattern", comparable to "not believing". Logically, however, there is a difference between "not thinking/believing that something is true" and "thinking/believing that something is not true". Therefore, it was surprising to me to learn that in Japanese this is not (easily) differentiated.

    Anyway, thanks for your help.

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