Nothing that wasn't something one might not hear

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Reading Dana Stevens "Ferguson and Fry Rock Late Night by Having Actual Conversation", Slate 2/24/2010, Mark Paris came across this sentence:

There was no part of their chat that wasn't something one might not overhear at an interesting dinner party.

His reaction, in email to me, was "I know what was meant, but didn't it go one negation too far?"

Apparently Dana Stevens though so, or perhaps some editor-like person at Slate intervened, because by the time I got to the story, the sentence read

There was no part of their chat that wasn't something one might overhear at an interesting dinner party.

Assuming that Mark didn't hallucinate the first version, this certainly belongs in our collection of overnegations.

This pattern is no where near as common as the favorites (like "cannot be underestimated" or "fail to miss"), but versions of it are Out There:

She most likely assumes there's heavy risk involved with his lifestyle, and that wasn't something she didn't want to expose herself to.

That looks like a really fun cut to do – I just can't believe that wasn't something I didn't think of…

Leia might have argued against his obvious hatred for their former leader, but she couldn't swear that it wasn't something she didn't feel herself.

To watch her hoop you'd never know that it wasn't something that didn't just come naturally to her the first time.

I'm not saying there weren't things that didn't need improvement in the Rod Lurie version.

[Update — Jill Beckman reports that NBC's coverage of the Ladies short program Tuesday night included the phrase: "There isn't a position that she doesn't hit that isn't gorgeous."

This example underlines the fact that the extra negatives can be in various places.

Thus the original example "There was no part of their chat that wasn't something one might not overhear at an interesting dinner party" was corrected to "There was no part of their chat that wasn't something one might overhear at an interesting dinner party" (removing the third negative), but might also, somewhat less felicitously, have been corrected to "There was no part of their chat that was something one might not overhear at an interesting dinner party" (removing the second negative).

But the NBC commentator's observation can only be corrected to "There isn't a position that she hits that isn't gorgeous", and not "There isn't a position that she doesn't hit that is gorgeous".

Homework assignment: explain the difference by translating (the relevant parts) into predicate calculus.]


  1. Cecily said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 9:42 am

    That reminds me of Boris Johnson's famous "I couldn't fail to disagree with you less". However, that was on a satirical TV programme and I'm sure his obfuscation was entirely deliberate.

    [(myl) Both deliberate and unoriginal. Paul Ziff (1984) attributes this witticism to president Eisenhower, but I'd be surprised to learn that Ike invented it — I'll bet that he heard it on the playground in elementary school, just as I did.

    Another pre-Boris citation for the phrase is Jack Smith, "Going out on a Limbo", Los Angeles Times 10/9/1978. Smith mentions "a remark attributed to Leon Spinks, at that moment heavyweight champion of the world, after being accused of taking stimulants from 'a little black bottle' in his fight with Muhammad Ali. 'I ain't denying there wasn't no bottle,' the new champ said". Smith observes that this "is a rare and precious example of the triple negative, and it reminded another reader, Eric Elfman, of something his father said some years ago during an argument in which the had just made what he considered a winning point: 'I can't possibly fail to disagree with you less,' the father said."

    The fact that the Plain English Campaign gave Boris Johnson their "Foot in Mouth" award for this epitomizes both their humorlessness and their ignorance. ]

  2. Cecily said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 10:46 am

    To be fair to Boris, he never claimed to have coined it; he merely said it, after which many British viewers assumed he had.

    [(myl) Exactly. It's as if he'd observed that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. He must have been shocked to be given either credit or blame for reciting an old chestnut.]

    I quite agree with you about the PEC. Despite their name, they are more of a commercial venture than altruistic campaigning organisation and awarding the "Foot in Mouth" award for Rumsfeld's "known unknowns" was even more of a travesty than awarding it to Boris. But in both cases, it generated lots of publicity for the PEC.

  3. Amy Stoller said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 10:58 am

    And then there's "Don't miss it if you can," a remark which Ira Gershwin (in his Lyrics on Several Occasions) attributes to a turn-of-the-century songwriter named Dave Clark. It inspired Gershwin to write "Don't be A Woman If You Can." The Clarkism has since been improved to "Don't fail to miss it if you can," and attributed to Sam Goldwyn.

    In passing, I wonder if anyone says "turn of the century" and means from the 20th to the 21st.

    [(myl) You mean like Jonas D.M. Fisher and Saad Quayyum, "The great turn-of-the-century housing boom", Economic Perspectives 3Q 2006: 29-44?]

  4. John Cowan said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 12:14 pm

    Clearly I ain't denying there wasn't no bottle is no triple negation; it's just ordinary nonstandard English negative concord, and its gloss in Standard English is "I'm not denying there was a bottle".

    [(myl) Yes, of course. But "covert negative concord" is one hypothesis about overnegation in varieties of English that lack (overt) negative concord.]

  5. mollymooly said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 12:40 pm

    I first encountered "filling a much needed void" as a description of Spinal Tap, but I later discovered it had been used unironically much earlier.

  6. Will said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 1:05 pm

    If someone said "turn of the century" to me out of any context, I would assume that would apply to the latest century turn. And in context, I would assume it would be an ambiguity to be resolved by contextual cues. I didn't realize this phrase was canonically associated with a particular century turn.

    And googling this:

    "turn of the century" 1999 2000

    Returns dozens of results with remarks about the turn from 20th to 21st centuries.

  7. CWV said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 1:10 pm

    In a recent post on SCOTUSblog about the people most likely to be nominated for the Supreme Court, Tom Goldstein writes: "Nothing I have written above fails to scream – not merely suggest, but scream – Elena Kagan, who deserves the title 'prohibitive front runner.'"

    This, of course, is not an example of overnegation. But I offer it as further proof that multiple negations tend to be hard to parse. I, for one, had to do a double take the first time I read the locution "nothing failed to scream."

  8. Dan T. said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 1:26 pm

    "Turn of the century", and related phrases, are always relative; in this work on London history, you find a reference to "towards the close of the last century", for which, in order to interpret properly, you need to know that the work being quoted here was published in 1878. Similarly, Gilbert & Sullivan's Major General song refers to his military knowledge being "only brought up to the beginning of the century", presumably the 19th.

  9. Chandra said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 4:15 pm

    I think there's still room for confusion. If I overheard someone mention a "turn-of-the-century work of art", I'd assume they meant c. 1900, even though it's plausible that they could be discussing a work of art created sometime around the new millenium.

  10. Dan T. said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 4:19 pm

    It's probably also relative based on how old the speaker is; those of generations like mine (and presumably yours) whose formative days were in the 20th century probably still associate "turn of the century" with the beginning of that one, while perhaps younger generations who don't remember anything before 2000 have a different association.

  11. svat said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 4:45 pm

    Is someone collecting examples of triple negatives?

    Some are here, in a post by Tim Gowers, FieldsMedal-winning mathematician and great-grandson of Ernest Gowers.

  12. Spell Me Jeff said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 6:33 pm

    So how do you describe a sentence like this:

    I wonder if we weren't too hard on him.

    . . . which would be uttered when you suspect that in fact you were too hard on him? (In my own slightly overwrought dialect, anyway.)

    Some sort of subjunctive?

    Might not Stevens's original fit this pattern?

  13. Martin Ball said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 7:24 pm

    What about under-negation? (Presumably due to final cluster simplification in colloquial speech). The one I keep reading is "I/she/they could care less" (recent example in Heilemann and Halperin's "Game Change").
    At least to me that means they care quite a bit…..

  14. Private Zydeco said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 12:29 am

    Forgive the miscalculative error here if it is indeed one, but isn't the logical entailment, as it is written, of

    Leia might have argued against his obvious hatred for their former leader, but she couldn't swear that it wasn't something she didn't feel herself.

    that the Leia in question does share somewhat of the same atipathy that is in question, but perhaps because of questionable near-disregard of first amendment rights exercised by a less-than-magnanimously-perceptive incumbent ruling power she felt it necessary to couch same in flip-floppingly cryptic terms?

  15. Private Zydeco said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 12:41 am

    Nevermind. It's a clear overnegation, given the "but". Rather sorry!

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