Indistinguishable misnegation

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David Frum, "Donald Trump's Bad Bet on Anger", The Atlantic 7/21/2016 [emphasis added]:

Donald Trump’s supporters yearn for the country as it was and fear the country as it is. Tonight’s powerfully dystopian Trump nomination acceptance address will touch them at their deepest emotional core. It will ignite a passionate spasm of assent from those many, many Americans—mostly but not exclusively white, mostly but not exclusively less affluent and educated—who experience today as worse than yesterday, and anticipate a tomorrow worse than today.

Don’t think it won’t work. It will work. The speech will be viewed and viewed again, on cable news and social media. The travails and troubles of this dysfunctional convention will recede, even if their implications and consequences linger. Trump’s poll numbers will probably rise. Small-dollar donations will surely flow. Many wavering Republicans will come home—even if the home to which they now return has changed in ways that render it almost indistinguishable from the dwelling it used to be.

Ian Preston writes:

Does "even if .. almost indistinguishable from" for "even if … almost unrecognisable as" count as a misnegation?  Unless I misunderstand what he is trying to say, that seems to be what David Frum must have meant to convey here.  Feels like some sort of "poor monkey brains" problem anyway.

The typical ingredients of (one variety of what we've been calling misnegation) are here, namely a scalar predicate (here implied by "even if … almost") , a modal (here the morpheme -able). and some negation (here the morpheme in-/un-), all combined so as to turn the statement into the opposite of what was intended.

David Frum wants to say that changes in the Republican party leave it so far away from its former identity that it's almost not possible to recognize them as the same. But he actually says that those changes move the Republican party to a place so close to its former identity that it's almost not possible to tell them apart.

For added irony, what he actually says is exactly the position that the whole article attempts to refute:

Trump’s speech was advertised as an update of Richard Nixon’s 1968 “silent majority” address. It is nothing of the kind. This is a bulletin from a grimmer and more pessimistic society than that which would shortly afterward land a man on the moon.

Ian's "poor monkey brains" quote is a reference to one of the explanations that I offered for a somewhat different subtype of misnegation ("'Cannot underestimate' = 'must not underestimate'?", 11/6/2008):

As recently noted, people often get confused about English phrases involving negatives combined with other negatives, modals, or scalar predicates, and there's a series of Language Log posts that collectively offer several (non-exclusive) hypotheses for why this confusion is so easy to fail to miss:

  1. Our poor monkey brains just can't deal with complex combinations of certain logical operators;
  2. The connection between English and modal logic may involve some unexpected ambiguities;
  3. Negative concord is alive and well in English (or in UG);
  4. Odd things become idioms or at least verbal habits ("could care less"; "fail to miss"; "still unpacked").

(See also "Multiplex negatio ferblondiat", 7/14/2007.)

In the case of Frum's similarity-inversion, the "poor monkey brains" story seems to be the only plausible explanation — though we might update it a bit to read "Our poor monkey brains just can't deal with complex combinations of certain logical operators, especially with respect to the logic of contemporary American politics".

The obligatory screenshot:


  1. Victor Mair said,

    July 23, 2016 @ 9:50 am

    In crude Mandarin grammatical analysis, we would say that the highlighted sentence of David Frum ("Many wavering Republicans…") is bùtōng 不通 ("illogical; doesn't make sense; obstructed; blocked up; impassable; ungrammatical; unreadable").

    To put it more crudely and more colorfully, it is gǒupì bùtōng 狗屁不通 ("dog fart bùtōng; bullshit"), as they used to say in the bǐzhàn 筆戰 (lit., "brush / pen wars", i.e., "written polemics") when I was living and teaching in Taiwan back in the early 70s.

  2. Mara K said,

    July 23, 2016 @ 11:11 am

    Does he mean "almost unrecognizable"?

  3. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 23, 2016 @ 11:21 am

    You could make an argument that the misnegation renders the sentence truer than it was intended: the party is distinguishable from what it was before only in that positions previously relegated to the subtext are now stated openly.

    But as Professor Pullum might say, this is Language Log, not Partisan Political Analysis Log…

  4. Andrew Shields said,

    July 23, 2016 @ 3:18 pm

    I noted the same phrase and tweeted an inquiry to Frum, but got no answer. I thought of tweeting it to you, Mark, but I was not really sure if it was misnegation (the negation being only in the prefix), and then I forgot to. Glad to see someone else thought of sharing it with you!

  5. Ray said,

    July 23, 2016 @ 7:55 pm

    to my unbiased ears, what the writer seems to be trying to convey is wrapped up in the same conundrum that has confounded and eluded all the punditry around trump: trump is not an ideologue, and all attempts to put him in that box (“republican” “conservative”) have failed, even as he has succeeded as a perceived, by-definition “republican” “conservative”. and it turns out that his supporters are also not ideologues, but rather the raw, unscripted product and voice of their real, personally-experienced current circumstances. in linguistic terms, it could be that trump and his followers are the rogue descriptivists at odds with the corrective prescriptivists and their embedded preconceptions of “home” “republican” “conservatives”…

    in any case, speaking of misnegations, it’s logically odd (but maybe monkey-brainedly revealing) that the writer labels the rnc “dysfunctional” after just having warned that trump’s speech there “will work.” (??)

    btw I love how politics and linguistics intersect. fascinating stuff.

  6. Michael Watts said,

    July 23, 2016 @ 8:16 pm

    I wouldn't call this a misnegation, because it strikes me as being exactly the same as another error I see frequently that involves no negation at all: people referring to "ancestors" when they mean "descendants".

    It's just being confused about which end of the scale you're talking about.

  7. Lukas said,

    July 24, 2016 @ 5:07 am

    Don't think it's a misnegation either. It seems to me that Frum knew perfectly well what word should have gone there, but his brain just provided the wrong word.

    When I read the sentence, my own brain translated it to what Frum had clearly wanted to say, and didn't even tell me that "indistinguishable" meant the opposite of what should have been there.

    "Misnegation" would imply that Frum had *wanted* "indistinguishable" to go there, not realizing that there was one negation too many in the sentence, but I don't think that's what happened.

  8. BZ said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 3:15 pm

    I caught this one right away. It's not the same as "too hard to ignore" or whatever in that you cannot negate any of the words to make it say what was meant.
    *"not even if … render it almost indistinguishable"
    *"even if … render it more than indistinguishable"
    *"even if … render it very indistinguishable"
    *"even if … render it almost distinguishable"

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