Undernegation: the truth behind the lie we told one another

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I'm not quite sure what went wrong with this sentence (Metro [Scottish edition] Wed 6 Oct 2010, page 19; can't find it anywhere online), which is a quote from Erin Arvedlund, the author of Madoff:

‘Madoff was just the human face of this lie that Wall Street told us and that we told one another — that the endless rise in everything we owned was too good to be true.’

It seems to be a kind of undernegation. But I can't quite see what to do to put it right.

The proposition that the endless rise in everything we owned was too good to be true is not the lie; it's the denial of the lie. It's the truth (we now know). Somehow Arvedlund flipped from reporting what the lie was to reporting what the truth was — the truth that we should have been telling one another instead of repeating the lie. The sentence is unquestionably an error: it doesn't say what the speaker wanted to say. Yet you can't easily repair it. Popping in a not at the obvious place gives you …that the endless rise in everything we owned was not too good to be true, and the problem with that is that it still seems to imply that the endless rise managed to be true despite being good. The explanation for the difficulty here is completely opaque to me. I don't even know how to set out clearly what the problem is. I need a negation expert; if only Larry Horn made house calls.



45 Comments

  1. Michael Albert said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 4:34 pm

    What about between 'was' and 'too'?

  2. Yuval said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 4:36 pm

    Howzabout "wasn't too good to be true"?

  3. Brian said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 4:37 pm

    My thought exactly. What's wrong with that?

  4. Chris said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 4:41 pm

    How about instead of negating it, just replace "that" with "but":

    Madoff was just the human face of this lie that Wall Street told us and that we told one another, but the endless rise in everything we owned was too good to be true.

    Therefore the lie can be inferred from the truth? Am I incorrect in this?

  5. Mags said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 4:41 pm

    I'd remove the "that". The lie would then be implicit.

  6. Faldone said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 4:46 pm

    "… that the rise in everything we owned was endless; that it would go on forever. We never admitted that it was too good to be true."

  7. Bruce Rusk said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 4:46 pm

    I see this more as a mangling of the form of the indirect quotation than a bungled negation; the portion following the dash might be a full sentence, rather than a clause describing the "lie." What about

    Madoff was just the human face of this lie that Wall Street told us and that we told one another — that everything we owned would rise endlessly was too good to be true.

  8. Nina said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 4:48 pm

    The "too good to be true" line doesn't work for me because "too good to be true" is a long way of saying it wasn't true. So it was a lie that something wasn't true … huh?

    And to say "wasn't too good to be true" … yuck. That's even worse, plus it interrupts the sort-of cliche "was too good to be true." It has a confusing double-negative feel to it.

    If I were revising it, I'd write axe that last phrase and write something like 'Madoff was just the human face of this lie that Wall Street told us and that we told one another — that the endless rise in everything we owned was, indeed, endless."

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 4:56 pm

    I'm with Yuval and Brian: "was not too good to be true" says exactly what the author wanted to say, even if it's ugly to some tastes.

  10. Nicholas Lawrence said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 5:28 pm

    Madoff was just the human face of this lie that Wall Street told us and that we told one another — we needn't worry that the endless rise in everything we owned was too good to be true.'

  11. MattF said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 5:36 pm

    I think the critical negation error is in the position of 'endless':

    'Madoff was just the human face of this lie that Wall Street told us and that we told one another — that the rise in everything we owned was endless.'

  12. Will said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 5:42 pm

    I agree entirely with Chris and Mags. The best way to repair this sentence while staying elegant and keeping with the author's original style is to either remove the "that", or replace it with "but". Either of these solutions makes it clear that the latter clause is a statement of truth, and the lie is easily inferable from that. I kind of think that this is what the author even intended to do and just slipped up using the wrong word to coordinate the clauses.

  13. Will said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 5:43 pm

    Actually looking at the statement again, just omitting the "that" is not entirely clear. I think it needs to be replaced with "but".

  14. Zora said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 5:43 pm

    Sentences become incoherent or hard to parse when the author tries to pack too much into one sentence. You have to unpack and expand the thought, usually to two or more sentences.

    Here's an alternative:

    Madoff was just the human face of the lie that Wall street told us and that we told each other–the lie that everything we owned would rise in value, endlessly. We now know that this was too good to be true.

    If I were editing the original sentence, I'd propose the alternative and ask the author to recast in his/her own voice, if necessary.

  15. Jonathan Lundell said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 5:46 pm

    '…— denying that the endless rise in everything we owned was too good to be true.'

    '…— that the endless rise in everything we owned was too good not to be true.'

  16. Nathan said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 6:19 pm

    Another minimal correction would be to move "that" to just after "owned", thus:

    "Madoff was just the human face of this lie that Wall Street told us and that we told one another — the endless rise in everything we owned that was too good to be true."

  17. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 6:41 pm

    > It seems to be a kind of undernegation. But I can't quite see what to do to put it right.

    I find the word "but" a bit surprising here: in my experience, many or most misnegations are hard to fix well. As I recall, one of the first examples that Language Log discussed was along the lines of, "No head injury is too trivial to ignore"; the simplest correction, "No head injury is too trivial to not-ignore", is both awkward and confusing. To fix it properly, you need to go further afield, with something like "No head injury is too trivial to worry about" or "No head injury is so trivial that we can ignore it". I think that's part of why the misnegations occur; they're the most natural expression of what they mean, except that they actually mean the exact opposite.

  18. tony said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 7:46 pm

    I'm with Faldone; I think the thing to do is end the sentence with the lie ("that everything we owned would endlessly rise") and simple add "But we all should have known was too good to be true" or some such as a second independent thought.

  19. George said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 8:49 pm

    It is not a language issue, but the truth is that Madoff's lie was not, as the author attempted to say, about endless market growth and prosperity – it was just plain fraud. The lie his investors told themselves was the man had a golden touch. But, these are problems of human greed not language. (sorry for the digression)

  20. Chandra said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 9:18 pm

    I have this idea that sometimes the phrase "too good to be true" can be used to celebrate a particularly surprising windfall or serendipitous occasion. Sort of like… "This is unbelievable!" -> "This is too good to be believed!" -> "This is too good to be true!"

    Maybe this is where the confusion stems from? Or maybe I'm just imagining things.

  21. dirk alan said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 10:51 pm

    dont drop the soap bernie. except bernie owns all the soap.

  22. Josh said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 11:19 pm

    I like yuvel's suggestion, as it solves the "undernegation" with minimal muddling in the original speaker's intended meaning.

  23. Aristotle Pagaltzis said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 11:31 pm

    I think this sentence ended up incorrect because of a deeper confusion about what it wants to do, trying to disown the lie at the same time as stating it. Consequently I do not think it is the linguistic level at which it should be fixed.

    Madoff was just the human face of this lie that Wall Street told us and that we told one another, when it was too good to be true: that everything we owned would rise endlessly.

    Often a linguistic failure is a symptom of confusion in thought, and a good writer knows to then clarify the thought rather than coax the sentence into correct expression of muddled meaning.

  24. iching said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 1:10 am

    'Madoff was just the human face of this lie that Wall Street told us and that we told one another — that the endless rise in everything we owned was too good to be true.'
    I would analyse it this way.
    Let X = this lie that Wall Street told us and that we told one another
    Let Y = the endless rise of everything we owned
    Let Z = too good to be true
    Note that Z is just another way of saying 'false'.
    Then the statement asserts that:
    'Madoff was just the human face of X, where X is the proposition that Y = Z i.e. X is the proposition Y is false' . The trouble is this implies that everybody (Madoff, Wall Street and the rest of us) was pro-moderation and anti-greed (Y is false), while implying the author believes in the opposite (Y is true).
    Presumably what the author meant was:
    'Madoff was just the human face of X. X = Y and Y = Z.'
    A rephrasing would then give:
    'Madoff was just the human face of this lie that Wall Street told us and that we told one another — which was the endless rise in everything we owned and which was too good to be true.'

  25. Shoe said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 1:27 am

    I agree with Aristotle that sentences often fail because of confused thinking and cannot be fixed by simply changing a word here or there, or relocating it. I like his proposed rewrite, but would use 'too good to be true' attributively:

    "Madoff was just the human face of the too good to be true lie that Wall Street told us and that we told one another: that everything we owned would rise endlessly."

    Possibly improved by hyphenating too good to be true or enclosing it in quotation marks.

  26. odondon said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 2:32 am

    I agree with Zora on this one, but would simplify it somewhat:

    'Madoff was just the human face of this lie that Wall Street told us and that we told one another — an endless rise in everything we owned. This was too good to be true.'

  27. Chris said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 3:51 am

    I think that Chandra goes to the heart of this:

    I have this idea that sometimes the phrase "too good to be true" can be used to celebrate a particularly surprising windfall or serendipitous occasion. Sort of like… "This is unbelievable!" -> "This is too good to be believed!" -> "This is too good to be true!"

    When people say "This is too good to be true", they often don't mean it literally. They are using it in the same way as in "This is incredibly good", where the word incredibly has completely lost its literal meaning and has become equivalent to extremely. Seen that way, Arvedlund's statement ceases to be a misnegation at all.

  28. Andrew said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 4:01 am

    Shoe's suggestion fits, and I'd wear it if it contained the required hyphens in the attributive too-good-to-be-true.

  29. Andrew said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 4:03 am

    Apologies – just re-read Shoe's post (or read the rest of it, which my skim skipped) – the hyphens are in the afterthought there.

  30. Ray Dillinger said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 4:17 am

    In my opinion, an unclear long sentence usually ought to be more than one sentence. Several people have recommended removing the word 'that'. I would go further and recommend replacing it with a full stop. The passage would then become:

    'Madoff was just the human face of this lie that Wall Street told us and that we told one another. The endless rise in everything we owned was too good to be true.'

    With the second sentence stating the truth that the lie obscured, the lie itself can be left implicit. I think this is probably the best correction that doesn't involve mangling the original idea.

  31. tpr said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 7:11 am

    "The proposition that the endless rise in everything we owned was too good to be true is not the lie; it's the denial of the lie."

    But it's not just saying the opposite of the lie either. It's also a comment on why it can't be true, which is why negating it isn't sufficient to fix it.

  32. Rolig said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 8:28 am

    A wise Angla woman once told me — "If it looks too good to be true, it probably isn't."

    But Chris's suggestion that "too good to be true" can be idiomatic English for "incredible", isn't quite there yet: unlike "incredible", which we usually use to mean something like, "I would never have believed something could be this good, but it actually was" ("what an incredible movie!"), "too good to be true" moves in the opposite direction, from belief to disbelief: the promise of disillusionment is intrinsic to the phrase. The writer of the problematic sentence apparently found it impossible to resist this cliche, and that is the source of one of the problems here. The other problem I find is with the phrase "the endless rise in everything we owned": shouldn't this be "the endless rise in the value of everything we owned"? I also think "this" before "lie" is unnecessary sich she is about to tell us which lie she is referring to. Setting off the dramatic "and we told one another" might help as well. So I would fix the sentence this way, appending the cliche as a separate sentence — though it could easily be dispensed with altogether:

    'Madoff was just the human face of the lie that Wall Street told us, and that we told one another, about the endless rise in the value of everything we owned. But it was too good to be true.'

  33. Mr Punch said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 9:33 am

    I'm with MattF on this – move "endless" to the end, and lose "too good to be true," which is the phrase that caused the problem.

  34. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 9:58 am

    I'd say too good to be true isn't just a way of saying false. It points out that we and Wall Street should have known our optimism was false, which is why what we said was a lie, not just a failed prediction. So I prefer the rewrites that retain too good to be true.

  35. peters said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 10:32 am

    The proposed fixes are too mired in the original structure, in my view. I'd suggest:

    Wall Street told us a lie that we told each other: everything we owned would rise endlessly. Madoff was just the human face of that lie.

  36. Terry Collmann said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 12:25 pm

    I'm with MattF and Mr Punch: "too good to be true" is the negative too many that reverses the sense of what the speaker meant to say, and it has to go, but in addition "endless" is in the wrong place.

    'Madoff was just the human face of this lie that Wall Street told us and that we told one another — that the rise in value of everything we owned would be endless.'

  37. JR said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 5:08 pm

    Madoff was just the human face of this lie that Wall Street told us and that we told one another — that the endless rise in everything we owned wasn't "too good to be true."

    It's probably an inelegant use of quotes, but it helps define "too good to be true" as a common, discrete expression in an otherwise convoluted sentence.

  38. Angus Grieve-Smith said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 6:31 pm

    What adds to the confusion is the weirdness of the phrase "the endless rise in everything we owned." It's not like everything "we" owned (speak for yourself) was rising off the ground, and it's weird to apply the metaphorical rising there. How about:

    "that the endless rise in value of everything we owned was true"

    or

    "that the value of everything we owned would rise endlessly – which was of course too good to be true."

  39. Shelly said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 4:57 pm

    I'm with Zora and Faldone. If the speaker wishes to preserve the "too good to be true" phrase for impact, it ought to be in its own sentence.

    Although I like Angus' hyphenation idea, I think the language becomes unwieldy with the addition of the beginning of the sentence: "Madoff was just the human face of this lie that Wall Street told us and that we told one another — that the value of everything we owned would rise endlessly – which was of course too good to be true."

    I think if a sentence needs two hyphens, it ought to just be two sentences. So, Zora's edit seems to work well.

  40. Clayton Burns said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 6:53 pm

    This is a good sample of Erin's text (perhaps GKP could e-mail her for a comment). She likes the dramatic dash. If what is presented is a "quote" from Erin's responses to questions, we might wonder about the dash.

    'Too Good To Be True'
    —Erin E. Arvedlund
    The Wall Street Journal Online.
    erinarvedlund@yahoo.com

    Excerpted from TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE: THE RISE AND FALL OF BERNIE MADOFF by Erin Arvedlund, by arrangement with Portfolio, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright (c) Erin Arvedlund, 2009.

    On the morning of March 12, 2009, Bernard Lawrence Madoff stood inside courtroom 24-B on the twenty-fourth floor of the Daniel P. Moynihan U.S. Courthouse in downtown Manhattan.

    He wasn't about to indict his family or anyone else for helping in this fraud—a fraud so large, encompassing more than four thousand client accounts, that even the Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, whose charity had lost millions, had been driven to calling Madoff "a thief and a scoundrel" in public.

    Madoff wanted everyone to believe that the crime was his and his alone—even though investigators suspected that his wife, his sons, his brother, and other relatives and top lieutenants helped carry it out. [End]

    I would call Metro to ask for the paper's account of the sentence.

  41. Matt McIrvin said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 10:49 pm

    I vote for Nathan's version: move the "that" after the dash to just before "was too good to be true". The endless rise is the lie.

  42. iching said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 3:38 am

    I also cast a vote for Nathan's version. Minimal corrections help us to spot where the problem lies more easily. Now can someone explain this in linguist-speak, maybe involving the different placement and function of that…?

  43. Tony Williams said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 5:42 pm

    I think that minimal correction doesn't work in this case. I think the only solution is to invert that last clause and turn it into "the too good to be true, endless rise of everything we own." which would seem to give us both a correctly formed sentence and keep intact the author's probable intent.

    // Tony

  44. tony said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 6:05 pm

    By chance, today I came across the wikipedia article for retronyms, which appear to be exactly what Arvedlund was talking about.

  45. Ian Loveless said,

    October 12, 2010 @ 1:16 am

    It's called an emdash, not a hyphen and it serves a dual stylistic purpose in my solution. First, it gives emphasis to "not" [though I might have used italics, as well] and second, it introduces the final phrase which also happens to be part of the main title of the book.

    "Madoff was just the human face of this lie that Wall Street told us, that we told one another: that the endless rise in everything we owned was not— too good to be true."

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