"The risk that the taxpayer does not bear a disproportionate burden"

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In a recent IMF report on Ireland, point 47 of the "Staff Appraisal" (p. 28), dealing with a proposed "National Asset Management Agency" (aka "Bad Bank"), reads:

47. With regard to NAMA, risk-sharing structures should be considered to address the well-known pricing problem. The pricing of distressed assets is complex and can slow down the transfer of assets from the troubled bank. Risk-sharing can potentially create better incentives for managing the bad assets. And they also guard against the risk that the taxpayer does not bear a disproportionate burden of the costs cleaning up the banks. [emphasis added]

Breffni O'Rourke, who sent in this example of overnegation, comments that "My fear is that they actually mean exactly what they say."

A phrase of the form "the risk that X" suggests that X is possible but not certain, and would be a Bad Thing. Some examples from the web where X is a positive statement (X in bold):

… the risk that a hidden asteroid in a stealth-path will hit the earth
The risk that HIV-seropositive drug users (DUs) transmit their HIV-infection
… the Risk that Hatchery Enhancement Will Reduce Genetic Diversity of White Seabass
… the risk that mass killings occur.
… the risk that a child will develop diabetes
… the risk that I will have a major complication after my valve operation?

And some examples where X contains a negation:

… the risk that acquisitions might not be integrated successfully
… the risk that she might not be able to carry a future pregnancy to term
… the risk that Adolor may not receive regulatory approval of Entereg (alvimopan)
… the risk that DHS is not creating the institutional knowledge needed
… the risk that Glu may not launch the mobile game as scheduled
… the risk that there's not enough binder in the paint for it to stick

Whether positive or negative, X is something that the writer hopes to avoid. So when the IMF staffers write about "the risk that the taxpayer does not bear a disproportionate burden", it's easy to see why Breffni is concerned.

Among the several explanations for misnegation, negative concord seems especially plausible in this case.


  1. RE said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 3:29 pm

    Of course, one could be incredibly charitable and suggest that they really intend a quite different construction: "guard against the risk [such] that the taxpayer does not bear a disproportionate burden…."

    In this case, the nature of the risk is left unspecified, because it can be identified obliquely: it is a risk of such a nature that one guards against it *in order that* the taxpayer does not have a disproportionate burden.

    Because, of course, a clause of the form "such that" (or "in order that") "X be the case" can be shortened to "that" alone — although in the case in question, it provides an unfortunate ambiguity.

    (I'm afraid I can't remember the name of the construction offhand; the negative version of it would be "lest" X….)

  2. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 7:51 pm

    @RE: I think that that "that" is always preceded by a written comma; always introduces the subjunctive (or a modal verb serving that role, such as "should"); and is too literary for the bureaucratic register of the context. (But that's obviously subjective.) All told, I think that the "overnegation" explanation is a bit more parsimonious.

  3. George said,

    June 26, 2009 @ 10:10 am

    @Ran Ari-Gur

    In fairness to RE, her/his (their?… nah, that just sounds weird, but why exactly?) explanation was described as "incredibly charitable"…

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