Negative concord at the New Republic?

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Jess Row, "What Are White Writers For?", The New Republic 9/30/2016:

It was around this time that I first realized something nonwhite writers learn almost by default: for a fiction writer to deny that fiction is in some way political—in the sense of existing in an inherently politicized world—is not only an act of bad faith but a kind of artistic failure. How can we not, as writers, grasp that our own political existence, our own subjectivity, our citizenship, our racial and cultural identities, and the arguments of our time, are not material for our art, that these things are in some sense not all part of one ongoing conversation?
 [emphasis added]

Gunnar Harboe writes:

The second sentence sounds woolly to me either way around, but in light of the first sentence I'm inclined to believe that it has one level of negation too many.

That second sentence includes a question, a modal, and three negations, along with a five-part conjunction in the middle of it all, and two parallel complement clauses at the end. We've seen that such ingredients are often a recipe for trouble. So here's a simplified version:

How can we not see that X is not material for Y?

Or even simpler:

How can we not see that Q?

This simple phrase seems to convey the opinion that Q — the opinion that X is not material for Y. In the context of the rest of the essay, that interpretation seems to be the opposite of what the writer meant.

So I'll add this one to our long list of misnegation examples.




  1. Faldone said,

    October 4, 2016 @ 8:17 am

    It don't look like no negative concord to me.

  2. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 4, 2016 @ 8:54 am

    Me neither. My guess would be that by the time the author got to the end of the sentence, he or she had forgotten that it started "How can we not… grasp" and was remembering something like "How can we… imagine". I don't know how you'd tell for sure, though.

    [(myl) What do you think of:

    "So how can you not believe that North Koreans are not forced to worship their leaders?"


  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 4, 2016 @ 10:02 am

    I was more struck by how the second sentence even on the author's presumably intended meaning didn't really seem to support the first sentence. But that seemed more likely to be a reaction on my part based on logic or philosophy or something rather than narrowly linguistic points. But then I decided that maybe the problem is with the first sentence and is at least somewhat linguistic. The complaint is with people who "deny that fiction in some sense political – in the sense of existing in a politicized world." But that's a stupidly overbroad semantic scope to give to "political," because it makes all sentences of the form "X is political," for any X which is a mode of human activity or interaction, tautologically true — who could reasonably deny that all of those X's exist in a politicized world? It seems more likely that it is the author who is arguing either in bad faith or with a failure of imagination, since almost anyone actually taking the position that "writing fiction is not (necessarily) political" is almost certainly using "political" in a narrower sense than a sense in which the claim that writing fiction is "political" would be tautologically true and thus trivial. Specifically, anyone denying the claim is much more likely to be using "political" in some sense which is more practically useful in that it allows for at least some meaningfully-sized non-zero set of "non-political" forms of human activity/interaction to which "political" forms can be usefully contrasted, with reasonable debates thus possible as to what falls on what side of the line thus drawn.

  4. Bloix said,

    October 4, 2016 @ 2:38 pm

    There's a reason I don't read The New Republic anymore.

  5. Geoff Nunberg said,

    October 4, 2016 @ 5:51 pm

    I agree with Jerry Friedman. It doesn't look to me like the kind of sentence you write at a single sitting.

  6. Chris C. said,

    October 4, 2016 @ 6:05 pm

    My immediate impression is that no one capable of creating such a sentence has any right to lecture a competent writer on anything.

  7. AntC said,

    October 4, 2016 @ 8:13 pm

    What @Chris C said. Jess Row claims to be a writer, and has published a novel/is working on another.

  8. D.O. said,

    October 4, 2016 @ 11:58 pm

    J.W. Brewer, don't you know? everything is related to class struggle. Just read Party Organisation and Party Literature.

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 5, 2016 @ 9:48 am

    Prof. Liberman: What do you think of:

    "So how can you not believe that North Koreans are not forced to worship their leaders?"

    First, it doesn't sound like negative concord to me. I must admit, though, that despite having heard a fair amount of dialects where it's used—the town I live in could be called Negative Concord, New Mexico—my intuition for those dialects isn't reliable.

    Just going by that intuition, I'd say that a "that" clause doesn't agree in negativity with "not believe" in those dialects. "So how can you not believe that North Koreans are forced to worship their leaders?" sounds find to me in imagined AAVE or NMHAVE. LIkewise it would be "I don't believe I got any", not *"I don't believe I don't/ain't got none." But I could be wrong.

    As for an account of how the North Korea sentence happened, I don't know. Though it's so short, I don't think forgetting is impossible. It reminds me of Fowler's examples of Unequal Yokefellows and Defective Double Harness, some of which are pretty short. None of them involve negations, though as you've pointed out here, negations seem to get people farblondjet this way. But I don't have a general theory of how such things happen.

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