Misnegation of the week

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From a letter to the editor in the Nov. 8 New Yorker:

Such rhetoric then [by left-wing critics of George W. Bush] was hardly less corrosive, or less supported by scholarly reasoning, than the crackpot vitriol now spewed by Beck and his ilk.

As we've noted many times, combinations of negation and scalar predicates are hard for our poor monkey brains to process.

If you're curious about the context, the whole letter is here.

In other semantic news, today's Tank McNamara offers a new twist on a joke first told by Bertrand Russell in 1905:

Russell's version, from On Denoting:

When we say: `George IV wished to know whether so-and-so', or when we say `So-and-so is surprising' or `So-and-so is true', etc., the `so-and-so' must be a proposition. Suppose now that `so-and-so' contains a denoting phrase. We may either eliminate this denoting phrase from the subordinate proposition `so-and-so', or from the whole proposition in which `so-and-so' is a mere constituent. Different propositions result according to which we do. I have heard of a touchy owner of a yacht to whom a guest, on first seeing it, remarked, `I thought your yacht was larger than it is'; and the owner replied, `No, my yacht is not larger than it is'. What the guest meant was, `The size that I thought your yacht was is greater than the size your yacht is'; the meaning attributed to him is, `I thought the size of your yacht was greater than the size of your yacht'.

If you find the BCS context puzzling, some background is here and here.

[And if you're having some trouble with the New Yorker letter, consider these other examples of the pattern "hardly less X or less Y":

As a principle of criminal justice it is hardly less familiar or less important than the principle that only the guilty ought to be punished.
It should be regarded as hardly less valuable or less sacred than a provision of the Constitution itself.
Lavoisiers work in Paris as treasurer was hardly less onerous or less hazardous.
Its companion, No.6 is hardly less expansive or less splendid.
The issue could hardly be less confusing or less controversial.

Note that the pairings of X's and Y's are congruent in evaluative valence:  familiar/important, valuable/sacred, onerous/hazardous, expansive/splendid, confusing/controversial.

Now compare the quote we started with, which pairs corrosive with supported by scholarly reasoning. ]


  1. The Ridger said,

    November 13, 2010 @ 6:53 pm

    I should probably just keep quiet but … "such rhetoric was hardly less corrosive than this" seems straightforward to me. X was hardly less corrosive than Y = X was no more corrosive than Y = Y is just as corrosive as X …

    What am I missing?

    [(myl) The problem is in the second disjunct. Try it by itself: "…was no less supported by scholarly reasoning than …"]

  2. Stephen said,

    November 13, 2010 @ 7:09 pm

    @The Ridger: You're missing the second part of the phrase. The writer of the letter meant to say "hardly … more supported by scholarly reasoning…"

  3. Stephen said,

    November 13, 2010 @ 7:11 pm

    Oops, I see my response was barely less slow than MYL's.

  4. The Ridger said,

    November 13, 2010 @ 7:40 pm

    Ah, yes. I see now.

  5. Ray Dillinger said,

    November 13, 2010 @ 8:28 pm

    Are there any languages where this kind of construction is easily understandable? If so, how do they do it?

    Are there languages with separate positive and negative quantifiers and a grammatical rule against negating them? Hmm, probably not. Now that I consider it I think a grammatical rule against a semantic operation violates one of the hundreds of linguistic universals research has uncovered. Languages with such a rule regarding surface syntax would more-or-less instantly acquire some periphrastic or other means of performing the semantic operation.

  6. Faldone said,

    November 13, 2010 @ 11:04 pm

    I would plug the "less supported …" in the place of "less corrosive" giving me "hardly … less supported …"

  7. Chris said,

    November 14, 2010 @ 11:18 am

    I absolutely cannot understand the second speech bubble in the comic.
    If I delete the word "does" then everything makes perfect sense.
    Can someone either expand that sentence to a fuller form, or patronizingly explain that the incomprehensibility is in fact the joke please?

  8. Terry Collmann said,

    November 14, 2010 @ 11:20 am

    It took me a couple of goes to get it the right way round, Faldone, but part (1) means "Beck vitriol = corrosive, anti-Bush vitriol = not less corrosive than Beck vitriol", while part (2) means, or was intended to have the meaning, "Beck vitriol = not much supported by scholarly reasoning, anti-Bush vitriol = not more supported by scholarly reasoning than Beck vitriol". Hope that's clear – a less and a more, not two lesses.

  9. Nelida said,

    November 14, 2010 @ 11:42 am

    I also believe that the crux of the matter lies, as it has been pointed out in several of the preceding comments, in the mistaken use of the second "less", which should have been "more":, i.e.: "hardly less corrosive and hardly more supported by scholarly reasoning". Perhaps a different construction would have prevented the error, as, for instance: "was hardly less corrosive, nor more supported by scholarly reasoning, than etc etc". Or, maybe, to keep the autor's "hardly less" construction, and achieve a correct pairing: "was hardly less corrosive, or less unsupported by scholarly reasoning, than etc etc".

  10. ignoramus said,

    November 14, 2010 @ 2:19 pm

    On the scale of zero to 14,one was 0.0 and tother was 0.1 or was is 13.9 and 14 or just a simple 10.

  11. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 14, 2010 @ 10:15 pm

    @Chris: I think the idea is "If Boise State doesn't play teams that are better than the ones it's been playing" or "Given that Boise State plays teams as weak as it does". The way it's expressed suggests the paradox that Boise State's opponents could be better than themselves.

    None of this, including the strip as a whole, strikes me as all that funny.

    Patronizing enough?

  12. groki said,

    November 14, 2010 @ 10:39 pm

    or, putting the letter together with the comic: "if the nation doesn't elect anyone better than it does, then winning should have no reflection on its world standing."

  13. Private Zydeco said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 10:54 pm

    "[…] was neither less corrosive nor better supported by scholarly research than [etc.]"

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