Wanting that very (no)thing

« previous post | next post »

Robert Neubecker, "Parents, the Children Will Be Fine. Spend Their Inheritance Now.", NYT 9/19/2014, reports "polling data from both older Americans and their adult children about whether they expected to leave or receive an inheritance":

Among the parents, ages 59 to 96, 86.2 percent expected to leave a bequest. But just 44.6 percent of the children, ages 40 to 60, thought they would get one. […]

The message here would seem to be that aging parents are generous to a fault, if a bit manipulative on occasion. Adult children, meanwhile, accept their obligations to care for their parents with little expectation of receiving anything in return, though some who remain on the dole well into adulthood expect their parents to provide for them from the grave too.

The study’s yes-no questions, however, are relatively limiting. Many parents may be hoping to leave just a token amount, after all. Adult children might lie about their expectations to please the researchers, too. And besides, even if you expect nothing it doesn’t mean that you don’t badly want that very thing.

Presumably that last phrase was intended to mean something like

… even if you don't expect [a significant inheritance]1
it doesn't mean you don't want [that very thing]1

where the two bracketed phrases are coreferential.

But in my variety of English, when I reach into "nothing" to pull out something for "that very thing" to refer to, I come up empty. And apparently M.S., who sent me the link, had a similar experience.

So either Mr. Neubecker's grammar is a little different from ours, or this is an editing error, perhaps causes by substituting "expect nothing" for some wordier phrase about not expecting something or other.



  1. FM said,

    September 20, 2014 @ 10:31 am

    I didn't feel much dissonance from this. I think I internally read "expect nothing" in an action movie narrator voice, because as a phrase it's kind of out of register and surrounded with ghost quotes. So it parses to me as "even if you [say you "]expect nothing["] it doesn't mean that you don't badly want that very thing [that you're claiming not to expect]."

    I guess this is a convoluted way of saying that I expect a something to be hiding behind the phrase "expect nothing" and I think the writer did too?

  2. chh said,

    September 20, 2014 @ 11:05 am

    This reminds me of complement set anaphora, where you can refer back to the complement of a set picked out by certain quantifiers:

    "Few people showed up. They were at another party."

    CA works with 'nothing', too, so I don't really understand why the intended meaning isn't really available for the inheritance sentence (it isn't for me, either).

    Just thinking about it for a second, it kind of looks like the following:
    'Nothing' works with CA, and generally the right quantifiers can do CA in object position too, but 'nothing' in object position just won't work.

  3. ===Dan said,

    September 20, 2014 @ 11:05 am

    I thought it might have been deliberate play with language. "Nothing" clearly refers specifically to the absence of an inheritance, so if you read it (playfully) as "no thing," then "thing" refers to the inheritance. It seems to me "that very thing" is an explicit reference to the "thing" of "nothing." Not quite logical, sure, but it seems to me like deliberate play with words.

  4. Gregory Kusnick said,

    September 20, 2014 @ 11:53 am

    This seems related to a similar construction that often brings me up short.

    "The law pits people who have nothing against people who do [have something]."

    Republicans think the government should take no action; Democrats think it should [take action]."

    I've just made up these examples, but they're typical of the sort of thing I see fairly often, in which the elided phrase is meant to refer back to the boldface phrase, but has the opposite sense.

  5. Matt said,

    September 20, 2014 @ 12:54 pm

    I'm no grammarian, but this doesn't strike me as wrong or considering at all. I read it as a perfectly acceptable use of CA that chh mentioned (though I didn't know that term myself). It seems quite obvious "that very thing" regrets to the complement of tree previous "nothing". And this seems a more elegant construction than the alternatives offered.

  6. John Lawler said,

    September 20, 2014 @ 2:00 pm

    This appears to be an Anaphoric Island.

    Don't expect an inheritance means the same thing as
    expect no inheritance, but the first construction leaves inheritance accessible for anaphoric reference, while the other doesn't.
    And it's even worse when a function word like nothing is used, instead of a noun.
    That's why I come up empty, just like Mark.

  7. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 20, 2014 @ 2:40 pm

    Maybe this sentence is particularly hard to parse because it contains three negations (plus 'badly' for good measure).
    I'm sure John Lawler's analysis is right, but still, sentences that break Ross constraints are often easy to understand. If we simplify it to something like

    Even if you expect nothing, you can still want it.

    – I think it's much easier to get the gist.

  8. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 20, 2014 @ 2:45 pm

    And actually the two surviving negated verbs suggest a possibility for the 'wordier phrase' that MYL suggests might have been changed in editing:

    Even if you don't expect anything, it doesn’t mean that you don’t badly want that very thing.

  9. hector said,

    September 20, 2014 @ 2:55 pm

    The sentence didn't bother me at all, and I'm a bit confounded by the fact that it bothered others. Both "nothing" and "that very thing" refer to the parents' estate. Even if you expect (nothing to be left of the estate) doesn't mean you wouldn't really like (something to be left of the estate). I agree that the writer is playing with the language, but what's wrong with that?

  10. Robot Therapist said,

    September 20, 2014 @ 3:48 pm

    "Even if you expect nothing, you can still want it."

    That to me seems more like gibberish than the original sentence.

  11. mollymooly said,

    September 20, 2014 @ 3:52 pm

    Possible originals…


    even if you don't expect something it doesn't mean you don't want that very thing


    even if you don't ex1pect a 2thing it doesn't mean you don't want that very thing

    …where in (b) the intended nucleus is at 1, but the subeditor thought it was at 2 and edited accordingly.

  12. mollymooly said,

    September 20, 2014 @ 3:57 pm

    The sentence under discussion, which has zero meanings, calls to mind a well-known quip which has two meanings: "If you expect the worst, you'll never be disappointed."

  13. Ø said,

    September 20, 2014 @ 5:02 pm

    For me it is easily understood, after an initial double-take, but still bad writing.

  14. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 20, 2014 @ 5:32 pm

    hector: I don't think it's playing with the language. I think it's ineptitude (and maybe complement-set anaphora, a term I hadn't known, rather than an editing error).

    John Lawler: On the other hand, I have only a mild problem with Even people who expect no inheritance may want it badly. I have no problem at all if the it is changed to one.

  15. Karl Narveson said,

    September 20, 2014 @ 6:06 pm

    A. E. Housman:

    Here lie we dead because we did not choose
    to live and shame the land from which we sprung.
    Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose,
    but young men think it is, and we were young.

    What is it that young men think life is?

  16. Mark W. said,

    September 20, 2014 @ 6:38 pm

    I've seen a few other instances of anaphora reaching "inside" a negative phrase to refer to whatever's being negated, and they certainly strike me as ungrammatical, or at least odd.

    The only one I can recall offhand was this, from "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban". Snape is talking about another character he has a major grudge against:

    "Nothing life-threatening," he said, looking as though he wished it were.

  17. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 21, 2014 @ 12:21 am

    Ø said-

    For me it is easily understood, after an initial double-take…

    Well sure, I think all of us understood the point soon enough. It's that double-take we're talking about.

  18. Zizoz said,

    September 21, 2014 @ 2:14 am

    I was only able to understand "that very thing" as referring to "nothing". And indeed, it is possible to both expect and want nothing.

    In the Harry Potter example, I think it's "looking as though he wished it were [life-threatening]" rather than "looking as though he wished it were [something life-threatening]", although that still leaves the question of what "it" refers to.

  19. Michael said,

    September 21, 2014 @ 5:01 am

    Nothing is better than eternal happiness; a peanutbutter sandwich is better than nothing; therefore a pb sandwich is better than eternal happiness…

  20. Zeppelin said,

    September 21, 2014 @ 8:31 am

    Hmm…Not a native speaker, but I initially read only the bolded sentence (i.e. had no context for what it might mean) and came away with the intended meaning with no hiccups.
    To me the intended meaning seems clear, and the interpretation that takes the negatives "literally" feels pedantic somehow. I've noticed I tend to read right past even quite bad misnegations though.

  21. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 21, 2014 @ 12:53 pm

    Karl: The Housman example is interesting because he could have written something like "not so much to lose" or "no great thing to lose".

    Incidentally, I hadn't quite realized the difference between "Just because… doesn't mean…" and "Even if… it doesn't mean…" I'm not sure either is appropriate for the American Newspaper of Record, though. Or not appropriate yet?

  22. Karl Narveson said,

    September 21, 2014 @ 4:20 pm

    Jerry Friedman: thank you for the paraphrases. They suggest answers to my question about what young men think life is:

    !Life is so much to lose.
    #Life is a great thing to lose.

    In my opinion, Housman would have rejected "so" in an affirmative context, without a result clause, as schoolgirlish and beneath his standard. As for "a great thing to lose", it's pragmatically wrong. We need "a terrible thing" or "a dreadful thing".

    I'm sure the discomfort of guessing the complement of "is" is something Housman was aware of and inflicted on purpose.

  23. Karl Narveson said,

    September 21, 2014 @ 4:33 pm

    Sorry, I misquoted. The first four words should have been "Here dead we lie".

  24. Rodger C said,

    September 22, 2014 @ 6:55 am

    Monk: "Master, I come before you bringing nothing."

    Zhaozhou Congshen: "Fine. Set it right over there."

    Monk: "But–it's nothing!

    Zhaozhou: "Well then, take it back with you."

  25. Terry Hunt said,

    September 22, 2014 @ 8:06 am

    Also —

    Riff Raff: "Master, I expect nothing."

    Frank N Furter: "Then you shall have it – in abundance!"

  26. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 23, 2014 @ 8:43 am

    Karl Narveson: When you asked what young men think life is, I thought you were asking a rhetorical question to point out the odd construction, not that you really wanted to know. I'd say Housman is saying that young men think life is much to lose, a lot to lose.

    I don't agree with your pragmatic objection that "great" would be the wrong word. "Great" can simply mean "big", which is what I had in mind. Compare "It is a great thing to lose a companion" from 1846. True, "great thing" usually means and meant "excellent thing", but in the context I think it would have been clear. Housman's line is sometimes misquoted as "Life, perhaps, is no great thing to lose," which suggests that people think that phrasing has the right meaning. (If not exactly the right meter.)

    As it happens, Housman did use "so" in an affirmative context as a mere intensifier. "In summertime on Bredon/ The bells they sound so clear;/ Round both the shires they ring them/ In steeples far and near". I agree that "Young men think it is so much" is unlikely , but of course those words wouldn't appear in the poem. There would at least be a complement for "is", even if it wouldn't said good said explicitly.

    I'm inclined to agree, though, that there's a good chance Housman deliberately gave the reader this difficulty, since I think he could have found some way to avoid it.

RSS feed for comments on this post