Trump the hypernegator?

« previous post | next post »

In addition to the many "nots" he uttered in last night's debate, Trump poured on the negations in this tweet today:

Many on Twitter were quick to accuse Trump of overnegation.

I ran this past the acknowledged master of negation, Yale linguist Larry Horn. Larry responded:

I guess there are two parses. If "in" = 'insofar as' or 'in respect to', it's what he meant. If it's a simple complementizer, equating to 'failing to not get the job done', yup, he's being hyper. But this is how hypernegation gets started in many cases. Consider "doubt…not", which used to be 'suspect not' or 'doubt that' as in this cite from Darwin (via Jespersen):

It never occurred to me to doubt that your work … would not advance our common object.

This would now be seen as hypernegation (as it was by me when I encountered it), presumably because of a reanalysis of "doubt" over the years.

Larry here refers to Otto Jespersen's Negation in English and other languages (1917) (see p. 75 on "paratactic negation"). For more along these lines, see Larry's 2009 BLS paper, "Hypernegation, Hyponegation, and Parole Violations" (handout here), as well as his comments in this 2007 Language Log post and this 2013 ADS-L discussion.


  1. Guy said,

    September 27, 2016 @ 1:39 pm

    I'm inclined to read it as "in" being more or less replaceable with "by".

    The usual preposition for complements of "fail" is "at", not "in", so I don't think it's a complement. And "in" does have an established meaning of something like "through the act of", or "with respect to".

  2. AntC said,

    September 27, 2016 @ 5:54 pm

    Putting together the LL posts/comments on last night's debate, I suspect anybody who knows what is a double-negative would be branded an intellectual/politico by the Trumposphere, and part of the problem.

    It's clear what Trump's tweet meant. If it also got up the noses of the clever-clogs twitterati, that's all to the good, I expect.

  3. Lazar said,

    September 27, 2016 @ 6:54 pm

    Yeah, like Guy, I don't really find this one too bad. She's been failing for 30 years in that she hasn't been getting the job done (as it were).

  4. JS said,

    September 27, 2016 @ 7:05 pm

    Yeah, don't have a problem with it. But "it will never change" definitely implies she'll be winning the election. And is immortal…

  5. Rubrick said,

    September 27, 2016 @ 10:45 pm

    All the comments about "failing to fail" called to mind this lyric from CSN's "Southern Cross", which is surprisingly easy to parse, given the (sort of) triple negation: "And we never failed to fail; it was the easiest thing to do."

RSS feed for comments on this post