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Bob Ladd sent in a link to "Five Questions on Brexit to Jo Shaw", Verfassungsblog 6/24/2016 [emphasis added]:

There’s a possibility for the Article 50 trigger to be delayed, and the UK simply to carry on in membership, and then – once the UK population has had long enough to digest the real implications of Leave […] a second referendum could be held, perhaps this time under better conditions. I’m not sure that this will happen, though, precisely because the issue is complicated by the internal territorial pressures discussed in the next section. I don’t think anyone is under any illusion that Boris Johnson is not some sort of ideological Leaver, so it could be that if he becomes Prime Minister then we will see moves in this direction.

Bob writes:

I *think* the clearly intended message is that Boris Johnson is NOT motivated by ideology but simply by personal ambition to get Cameron out of the way, and I *think* the logical interpretation of all those negatives is the opposite, but I'm not sure.

I *think* Bob might be wrong about how the negatives pile up. Re-layering the onion, in simplified form:

BJ is a true Leaver                                      = YES(BJ wants Leave)

BJ is not a true Leaver                                   = NO(BJ wants Leave)

It's an illusion that BJ is not a true Leaver            = YES(BJ wants Leave)

No one is under the illusion that BJ is not a true Leaver = NO(BJ wants Leave)

And "I don't think that anyone is under the illusion that P" is a subjectively-hedged way of saying "No one is under the illusion that P".

So I *think* it all comes out as (Bob *thinks*) it was intended, meaning that BJ is not an ideological Leaver, but just an ambitious politician.

When I first read the Verfassungsblog Q&A, however, I interpreted the passage in the  the opposite way, namely that BJ is an ideological Leaver who would trigger Article 50 as soon as he can — because I don't follow UK politics closely enough to immediately latch onto the plausible implication of an internal Conservative leadership struggle.

Definitely one for the misnegation files, even if the author's intent lines up with the logical interpretation of the phrase.

The obligatory screenshot:


  1. Laura Morland said,

    June 25, 2016 @ 6:09 am

    FWIW, I too "interpreted the passage as meaning the opposite, namely that BJ is an ideological Leaver who would trigger Article 50 as soon as he can".

    Obviously I don't follow internal Conservative party politics well enough, either — I just saw BJ as the "Face of Brexit" and took it for granted that his passion was real.

    As you say, a clear (finally) case of misnegation.

  2. GH said,

    June 25, 2016 @ 6:41 am

    I don't think that analysis is correct, since the final negative doesn't affect the truth the thing people may or may not believe, but only states that no one actually believes in the proposition.

    I also have the feeling that a construction with "is not some kind of" could take negative concord, so I would be very doubtful as to how to interpret the sentence as a whole.

  3. GH said,

    June 25, 2016 @ 6:52 am

    I would reason:

    1 "I don't think anyone is under any illusion that X" = No one believes that X
    2 "No one believes that NOT-X" = Everyone believes that X

    So this would imply that "Everyone believes that Boris Johnson is some sort of ideological Leaver." And since the rest of the sentence seems to imply the opposite (Johnson might move to take a mulligan on the referendum), it's a true misnegation.

  4. Tim May said,

    June 25, 2016 @ 7:38 am

    I agree with GH. Consider:

    "No one is under the illusion that BJ is not a true Leaver"
    "Everyone is under the illusion that BJ is not a true Leaver"

    These do not differ in whether it's true that BJ is not a true Leaver, only in whether people believe it.

  5. postageincluded said,

    June 25, 2016 @ 7:41 am

    Impeccable analysis but I still can't read it and feel it means that. Disturbing sensation and appropriate to it's subject.

  6. Ray said,

    June 25, 2016 @ 8:04 am

    maybe the confusion is because the writer actually meant "under the delusion" rather than "under the illusion"

  7. Yuval said,

    June 25, 2016 @ 9:21 am

    Seconding or thirding the previous commenters, I see the crux in interpreting the "illusion" part and the "no one" part separately.

  8. Darin Flynn said,

    June 25, 2016 @ 9:44 am

    Btw, negative concord is possible across clauses when the neg-raising verb comes after, as in: "Boris Johnson isn't motivated by ideology, I don't think/reckon/imagine/etc." Any pointers on why that is?

  9. Robert Coren said,

    June 25, 2016 @ 10:11 am

    I can't quite put my finger on it, but I think there's a connotative difference between "Nobody is under the illusion that…" and "Nobody is under any illusion that…". I think the latter is more likely to be a misnegation.

  10. D.O. said,

    June 25, 2016 @ 11:39 am

    I am sure that "I don’t think anyone is under any illusion that X" = "Everybody knows that not-X". For example, "I don’t think anyone is under any illusion that the sky is blue" = "Everybody knows that the sky is not blue". And "everybody knows that" does not change the valence of truth from the formal point of view (though everybody can be mistaken), which gives us "(NOT) Boris Johnson is not some sort of ideological Leaver" = "Boris Johnson is some sort of ideological Leaver", just like Bob thought.

    I have no idea what sort of ideology is in Boris Johnson's head and how likely is either possibility of him being or not being true Leaver, which belies "anyone is under any illusion". I very well might be, whatever the truth.

    The difference with Prof. Liberman's analysis is in that "I don't think" is a negation here, not a hedge.

    On further reflection, probably illusion is a key word. What goes before describes the knowledge state of various sentient beings, but the word illusion is a signal that what follows is not the truth.

  11. Gregory Kusnick said,

    June 25, 2016 @ 1:05 pm

    Whether or not "BJ wants Leave" is (in the context of this sentence) unknown and irrelevant. The point is that (a) he's an opportunist, and (b) nobody is fooled by any pretense to the contrary.

    The contrary of "opportunist" is "ideological Leaver", and "illusion" covers the "pretense" part. That leaves an extraneous "not" in between, and that's where the misnegation sneaks in.

  12. Lawrence Dunn said,

    June 25, 2016 @ 2:17 pm

    A little reminiscent of one of Boris's own roundabout misnegations: "I could not fail to disagree with you less."

    Though seeing as it actually works out fine, perhaps it's a pseudo-misnegation.

  13. Narmitaj said,

    June 25, 2016 @ 4:17 pm

    I know this is Language Log and not Politics Trivia log, but Boris apparently spent some time before deciding whether or not to come out for Brexit, listing pros and cons for both sides and then deciding. You can't believe Nigel Farage went through such an exercise.

    Among other things his father Stanley, sister Rachel and brother Jo all backed Remain, so Brexit is not family ideology. All are slebs in their own right: Stanley is co-chairman of Environmentalists for Europe and a former MEP; Rachel is a journalist and former editor of The Lady; and Jo is a Conservative MP and Minister for Universities and Science.

    Though I am no political psychological profiler, it's possible to surmise from Boris's somewhat sheepish victory speech, where he kind of apologised to the youth of 18-24 who voted overwhelmingly for Remain, and various other bits of evidence (the fact he is of part Turkish extraction and claims to be passionately in favour of wide immigration) that he would have preferred a narrow Remain vote. Cameron would have gone anyway in time, Boris could become PM and renegotiate a better deal for the UK within the EU while demonstrating form as an Outie, and thereby spike the guns of of the xenophobic right. Who knows.

    Now with Brexit he might have a lot of work to do, which is not apparently his forte, and also he is due to publish his bio of Shakespeare in October, inconveniently around the time he might become Prime Minister.

    All of which is to suggest that, whatever the tangled worderie, our quoted journo meant to say that no-one thinks Boris is an ideological leaver.

  14. Bathrobe said,

    June 25, 2016 @ 4:51 pm

    "I don’t think anyone is under any illusion that X" = "No one believes the illusion that X" ="X is an illusion that no one believes".

    So what is the illusion? "Boris Johnson is not some sort of ideological Leaver" is the illusion. The implication is that Boris Johnson is some sort of ideological Leaver. Definitely misnegation.

  15. Chris Waigl said,

    June 25, 2016 @ 8:03 pm

    I agree with Bathrobe, GH et al, and think that you made a mistake in the last step by adding a negation when going from

    It's an illusion that Y
    no one is under the illusion that Y

    It's just an illusion that no one believes in.

  16. Chris Waigl said,

    June 25, 2016 @ 8:07 pm

    To add, though, I don't think I completely believe it's a mis-negation. Isn't there a way to enter an extraneous "not" into already negative-coloured (maybe negative polarity) constructions? Cf. "no one is under the illusion that the Moon is made of green cheese" and "no one is under the illusion that the Moon isn't made of green cheese" — knowing that indeed the Moon is not made of green cheese, neither of the two sounds all that horrible, though only the first would be what I use in careful writing.

  17. tangent said,

    June 25, 2016 @ 9:49 pm

    There's a valence flip between "no one is under any illusion" and "no one thinks it an illusion".

    "no one is under the illusion that peppers ripen here" — peppers don't ripen, nobody is deluded otherwise.

    "no one thinks it's an illusion that peppers ripen here" — peppers ripen, everyone knows that's legit.

  18. 艾力·黑膠(Eric) said,

    June 26, 2016 @ 1:04 am

    If one for the misnegation files, why is this post not so categorized?

  19. Bob Ladd said,

    June 26, 2016 @ 12:53 pm

    @Narmitaj – It's irrelevant to your point, but I feel obliged to point out that the person quoted in the passage under discussion is not a "journo", but Professor of European Law at the University of Edinburgh. She was also being interviewed by email after a sleepless night, which may explain the tangled (?) syntax that I drew Mark's attention to. Although she is not a close colleague, I know that she is normally a very effective speaker and writer.

    On the other hand, I'm happy to see that most of the people on this thread seem to support my original feeling that the syntax really is tangled.

  20. Narmitaj said,

    June 26, 2016 @ 7:06 pm

    @Bob Ladd… oops, apologies to the professor! (Profo?)

    While I am here, my brother is a fluent German speaker so doesn't find those Downfall Hitler Bunker subtitled films very funny, and most denizens here possibly feel the same way, but here is one on Boris realising he has accidentally won the Brexit campaign.

  21. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 27, 2016 @ 11:47 am

    Bob Ladd has added the key detail (which was maybe a plausible inference from context but not certain) that this was an email "interview" rather than a journalistic transcription of an oral interview, meaning that the oft-plausible hypothesis of mistranscription by the journalist is not in play (or at least less likely to be in play, although if the published version of an email interview is created by any process less simple than cutting-and-pasting the interviewee's complete answers w/o any cuts or editing, the possibility of journalist-caused difficulties still remains). Whether people (especially sleep-deprived or otherwise not at their best) are likely to create such tangled/garbled syntax by mistyping to the same extent (neither more nor less) as by misspeaking seems an interesting potential question. Certainly, if Prof Shaw went back and edited her draft responses before hitting send, that creates a possible opportunity to garble a previously ungarbled bit of text that is generally not available when speaking.

  22. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 27, 2016 @ 11:54 am

    An interesting linguistic aspect of Brexit might be that it is close to unthinkable that a UK-less EU could function without English as one of its principal working languages, enabling bureaucrats of Finnish and Portuguese and Slovenian (etc etc) origin to communicate among themselves in a common L2. I suppose there will remain the figleaf that English is a co-official language in the remaining (for now?) member states of (southern) Ireland and Malta, which between them have less than 1.5% of the UK-less EU's population. But they would need it even without such a figleaf.

  23. Paul Kay said,

    June 27, 2016 @ 1:31 pm

    I'm in the Bob Ladd, D.O., Bathrobe, Chris Waigl, etc. camp. If it's an "illusion that Boris Johnson is not some sort of ideological Leaver," then regardless whether anyone holds that false belief, Boris Johnson is some sort of ideological Leaver. If that's not what the speaker intended, which seems to be the case, it is a case of misnegation.

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