Miss not

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Yesterday's Beetle Bailey, pointed out by Karen Davis:


Sarge's explanation ("He really misses the days when the mailman doesn't come") is obscure at best, but the apparently extraneous negation in his when-clause may be related to the "miss not VERBing" construction, discussed in a Language Log post back in 2004,

"miss not VERBing …" in the meaning "feel the lack or loss of VERBing …" rather than "feel the lack or loss of not VERBing" — has become a widespread (if not universally accepted) idiom. I checked 10 instances at random from the first 150 produced by a Google search for "miss not", and found that 8 of them were overnegations …

This morning I checked COCA, and found 28 instances of "miss not". Of these, 8 were completely different sorts of constructions ("…miss not just/only … but also …", "His choice essentially came down to TCU or Ole Miss- not exactly the Floridas and Texases of the world", etc.), and the other twenty were instances of this idiom.

There is some quasi-prescriptive discussion  here and here, but "miss not VERBing" doesn't seem to be very high on the collective peeve list.

Larry Horn discusses this construction in "Multiple Negation in English and other languages" (in  The Expression of Negation, 2010), and provides a quote where Richard Lederer does his best to summon up some indignation:

As Larry observes, this usage generally makes sense if you take miss to mean "regret". This works for Sarge's comment about Otto, as long as we soften regret to something like "be nostalgically unhappy about something connected with", so that "He really misses the days when the mailman doesn't come" becomes "He's nostalgically unhappy about something connected with the days when the mailman doesn't come".

How long has this idiom been around? It may be a relict of the days when English was a negative concord language, for all I know, but a quick web search turns up this passage in a story from 1917:

"You don't miss it?" he asked, after a little pause.
"Just as I miss not being able to write an ode to a nightingale," she sighed. "I've missed the gift of the art of light."
And it seemed to him who heard her that one who could speak like that might have many gifts.

Also this, from an 1863 novel A Glimpse of the World by Elizabeth Missing (!) Sewell:

She had indeed but one regret — for Rosamond, who she thought would miss not having someone to whom she could speak of Mr. Verney.

Ms. Sewell certain does not give the impression of someone who is careless with negation:

One last older example, from a highly placed source (an 1873 letter from Princess Alice to her mother, Queen Victoria):

I am so much with my children, and am so accustomed to care for them and their wants daily, that I miss not having Frittie, the object of our greatest care, far more than words can describe, and in the quiet of our everyday life, where we have only the children around us, it is doubly and trebly felt, and is a sorrow that has entered into the very heart of our existence.

("Frittie" was her son, who died of brain hemorrhage following a fall at the age of 2 1/2.)

On the basis of examples like these, I'm inclined to think that that the "miss not VERBing" construction was part of formal modern standard written English from the start, and that the Fowlerite objections — which led at least to a certain amount of copy-editor intrusion — were examples of the authoritarian rationalism that has been adopted by purveyors of usage advice over the past couple of centuries.

[I guess I should also point out that the "You've got mail" notification is a left-over from the neolithic ("neoelectronic"?) era. For all I know, yesterday's Beetle Bailey is also recycled from the mid-90s.]



45 Comments

  1. Ben Zimmer said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 8:29 am

    For another example of "miss not" from the comics pages, see Hagar the Horrible in 2005.

    [(myl) Thanks! I knew there was another one somewhere. I did a site search for "miss not", which missed this one because the only form used in the text is "misses not"…]

  2. Tim Martin said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 8:50 am

    Wow, this expression is so natural for me, it took me several minutes to figure out why this was noteworthy at all!

  3. Twitter Trackbacks for Miss not: Yesterday's Beetle Bailey, pointed out by Karen Davis: As noted in a Language Log post back in 2004,... [upenn.edu] on Topsy.com said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 8:55 am

    […] Miss not: Yesterday's Beetle Bailey, pointed out by Karen Davis: As noted in a Language Log post bac… languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2941 – view page – cached "miss not VERBing …" in the meaning "feel the lack or loss of VERBing …" rather than "feel the lack or loss of not VERBing" — has become a widespread (if not universally accepted) idiom. I checked 10 instances at random from the first 150 produced by a Google search for "miss not", and found that 8 of them were overnegations … Tags […]

  4. Dan T. said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 10:34 am

    The "You've Got Mail!" announcement was just heard by AOLers, who were held in low esteem by users of real ISPs even way back in the '90s.

  5. Ben C said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 10:42 am

    @Tim

    Whereas it's so unnatural for me, it took me a few minutes to figure out what Beetle meant! Silly old English.

  6. Rolig said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 10:49 am

    As Horn suggests, perhaps this is not overnegation but rather simply the use of "to miss" in the sense of "to feel the loss of [i.e. the loss that results from]", which seems to be an extension on the "standard" sense "to feel the lack of".

    I miss not having you around. = I feel the loss of [the loss that comes from; the loss that is the experience of] not having you around.

    I miss having you around. = I feel the lack of [the absence of the experience of] having you around.

  7. Chris said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 11:21 am

    Of course, none of this is helped by the fact that American comics are never funny, and frequently don't even make sense.

    [(myl) Come on, Chris, don't be (to use the technical term) a snotty jerk.]

    Is the joke that he misses barking at the postman, or that he misses those peaceful days when there was no mail at all?

    The first one is a simpler "joke", but is 100% not what those words mean. The second is definitely what he says, and is the only way I'm able to read it.

  8. Mark P said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 11:25 am

    I tried to post a comment earlier but it apparently was lost. I had said that replacing "the days" with "it" eliminates the apparent problem in Sarge's sentence. The phrase "miss it" seems to be pretty common, although the "it" usually has a well-defined reference. In Sarge's case, the "it" is only implicitly understood to mean something like what myl says ("… something connected with the days when the mailman doesn't come").

    [(myl) This isn't a writing clinic for comic-strip authors — we're not trying to "fix the apparent problem" with the sentence, but to discuss what's going on with constructions of this kind.]

  9. Tom V said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 11:34 am

    I just ran across another usage here that might be called overnegation.
    "He [the new prime minister of Egypt] also appeared able to express the suffering of his country and communicate with the citizens, while promising to find out the loss of insecurity." It took a moment to realize that the word should be "security". Wish I could read more than one sentence of Arabic; the original is probably on-line as well.

  10. nyuu said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 11:40 am

    I agree with Chris.

    The comic seems to be demonstrating "miss NOUN" and not the "miss not VERBing" that is the subject of this post.

    [(myl) No, the relevant structure of Sarge's sentence is "miss NP [S … not …]", as more canonically in

    I do miss the fact that the spindash isn't in the 3D games anymore.
    Do you miss the fact that Mommy isn't around to fix things for you any more?
    I miss the fact that zerg doesn't have a 1 food unit anymore.
    I must confess that I miss the idea that the ornery old cuss isn't around any more.

    For those structures, the analysis of the pleonastic (?) negation is essentially the same as in "miss not VERBing".]

  11. Zythophile said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 12:11 pm

    I (British) also had much difficulty working out what Beetle actually meant, but finally nailed it (I think) as "He really misses the mailman on the days he doesn't come." I'm not sure this is the same as Princess Alice's "I miss not having Frittie", or Elizabeth "missing" Sewell's "would miss not having someone to whom she could speak of Mr. Verney", which simply need "not" removing to mean what the writer intended, rather than requiring a complete rejig.

  12. Nick said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 12:20 pm

    I am also british, and the last speech bubble read a little like gibberish the first time through. I actually didn't make the connection through to the saner "He really misses the mailman on the days he doesn't come", and was left wondering why the postman coming every day caused the dog to bark at emails.

    Is this phenomenon particularly prevalent in the US, or are there just different ways of presenting it in the UK?

  13. Boris said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 12:25 pm

    But "regret the days when the mailman doesn't come" doesn't make any sense either. I think this is different from the "miss not" construction.

  14. richard howland-bolton said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 12:36 pm

    @Chris
    "Of course, none of this is helped by the fact that American comics are never funny, and frequently don't even make sense."

    That's a dreadfully cruel overstatement.
    I've been reading American comics for the last 30 years and I can assure you that during those decades I've seen several that were quite amusing, though I can't fault you on your second point.

  15. mollymooly said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 1:18 pm

    I share the cisatlantic failure to comprehend this strip. All the "I miss not Xing" examples I understand readily, but "I miss the days when X didn't happen" seems to be a different structure.

    Even after reading Prof Liberman's exposition, I genuinely can't tell whether the intended meaning is "I miss the days when X used to happen" or "I miss the days when X might have happened but didn't" or something else entirely.

    [(myl) I don't think it's a geographical issue — the text is genuinely confusing. However, it's clear from the combination of text and context that:

    (a) dogs traditionally bark at postmen;
    (b) Otto the dog is barking at an AOL mail notification window, as a generalization of (a);
    (c) Sarge is explaining that Otto has some kind of nostalgic feelings about the former habits of postmen;
    (d) The negation in the subordinate clause
    (e) The punch line is neither coherent nor very funny.

    My guess, for what little it's worth, is that Sarge's observation is a blend of "he really regrets the days when the postman comes/used to come [regularly]" and "he really regrets the fact that the postman doesn't come [anymore]".

    It seems in this case that the negation-related confusion has spread to other aspects of the sentence.]

  16. Mark P said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 1:22 pm

    Are my comments too elliptical? I wasn't trying to tell the comic strip author how to write his strip. I was trying to figure out what makes the sentence remarkable (as it appears to be, since it has been remarked upon). So I thought, if you replace "the days" with "it" then the sentence is no longer (as) remarkable. In fact, the use of "it" in such a construction seems entirely normal (and unremarkable) to me. It could equally well be written "Hr really misses it on the days …" instead. So I suppose in this sense, the sentence itself is elliptical.

  17. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 2:07 pm

    I'm with Nick and Zythophile. In my understanding, the days when the mailman doesn't come can't be messed with, so it's present tense and refers to those days when the mailman doesn't happen to come, not nostalgia. This isn't very consistent with the implication that Otto always barks at e-mail, but I'm not arguing with my non-standard-idiom parser.

  18. cameron said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 2:14 pm

    I really don't think there's any dialect of English, on any continent, in which the comic's ostensible punchline would make any obvious sense.

  19. Boris said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 2:18 pm

    Could it possibly mean that he (really) misses (as in doesn't notice) whether or not it's a day when the mailman does or does not come thanks to email which always comes? Or does the "really" preclude this reading?

  20. Rubrick said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 2:27 pm

    In something of a coincidence, in today's installment the Comics Curmudgeon (who not infrequently aims his snark at Beetle Bailey) proclaims himself a "firm descriptivist" in linguistic matters, and touches on the matter of peevology (and his own susceptibility to it in regards to a particular use of the word "quality").

  21. Jason said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 2:59 pm

    I have to agree with Chris–not the generalizations about American comics, but about the meaning of this comic. It seems to me that if Otto feels the need to bark at all his email, he would get tired of barking all the time and get nostalgic for days when the mailman didn't come and he didn't have to bark at the mail at all, even if he didn't appreciate it at the time.

  22. Erik said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 3:12 pm

    That should really be only 19 instances from the COCA. One of the 20 I saw is an example of "miss not X" meaning that they now X, and they miss the days when they could not X. Full context:

    Unidentified Student 2: What is the worst part about having the disease? Mr-PARTLOW: Not being normal in some respects. I miss not having to think about this. I miss just going to work and leading a normal life and getting on the subway and not going to a doctor every week.

    This kind of formation seems more logically straightforward and literal-minded (but it definitely seems to be less common). Perhaps this is because it's only sensible in a few particular situations (or so it seems to me). I can only think of examples where someone is currently being forced to do something or to deal with the presence of something. In such cases, it makes sense to talk about "missing not having to" do something or "missing not having" something in this literal negation-canceling sense.

    If this sort of situation is so unusual, perhaps that helps explain why it's so easy for some people to slip into this kind of concordant negation; there's little chance for confusion because the literal negation-canceling interpretation is frequently just absurd.

  23. Erik said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 3:17 pm

    You can get lots of examples of people missing the absence of an obligation by searching Google for "miss not having to", but I haven't found any examples of people using "miss not" (or similar) to communicate missing the absence of something physical. Anyone have any good examples?

  24. wally said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 3:39 pm

    The comic reminded me of biff, the old unix program that would alert you when mail came. The command was named for a dog that would bark when the mailman came. Imagine how thrilled I was the day I learned that Biff had been owned by a friend of mine, Heidi, that apparently lived in a dorm at Berkeley with Bill Joy.

  25. Adrian Bailey (UK) said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 4:30 pm

    The given sentence can be glossed as "He is sad when the mailman doesn't come." Hence "He really misses the days" is equivalent to "He is sad". This makes sense and lends support to the idea that we are dealing with a figure of speech here rather than a double negation or faulty logic.

  26. Will said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 4:53 pm

    I have to say the "Miss Not Xing" idiom is actually unfamiliar to me (and I'm an AME speaker), and even with my introduction to it via the examples after it, the word bubble quote still vexes me.

    All that being said, I still understood the intent of the quote, and the intended humor of the comic.

    I think the joke would have made just as much sense (or more sense) and been quite a bit funnier if the second panel were removed entirely.

  27. Craig said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 7:25 pm

    In response to some of the UK commenters, I'm from the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, and I have no clue how to parse it either. I think it means that he misses the "good old days" when an actual postman used to deliver the mail; however, I'm hardly sure of my interpretation.

  28. m.m. said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 9:10 pm

    Tim Martin said,
    Wow, this expression is so natural for me, it took me several minutes to figure out why this was noteworthy at all!

    Westerner here, and it took me a few minutes, due to not reading the title, that it was the "miss not" item this post was about. The "doesn't come" is what strikes me as a bit peculiar in that sentence, where I'd of used "didn't come" instead.

    But "miss not VERBing …" is very natural sounding to me. Though for some reason, when I read it, I put stress on the 'not', unlike in speech, which 'miss' gets the stress. Stressed 'not' sounds british for some reason aswell. /sigh… I miss not analyzing my speech all the time. Tis the curse of the linguistically inclined.

    note: that punchline was lame.

  29. Dan Lufkin said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 10:52 pm

    m.m. — Lame? Nonsense; it was all I could do to keep from laughing.

  30. Matt McIrvin said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 11:26 pm

    "You've got mail" has survived in another venue: the "Elmo's World" segment that has played in the last 15 minutes of Sesame Street since 1998. Elmo has a computer of now-archaic appearance, with a big chunky CRT monitor with speakers attached to the sides; it hops into the room shouting "You've got mail! You've got mail!" when Elmo gets email, which always has a video attachment from one of his friends.

    The segment hasn't changed much in appearance or format since it originally aired, so that they can keep re-using the same segments over and over without anything looking different.

  31. John said,

    February 4, 2011 @ 12:37 am

    I'm with those who feel that "miss not verbing" sounds OK (though I'm not sure that I use it myself).

    I also wonder whether it wasn't something like "I miss it when X doesn't happen" which then has its "it" elided. That's purely without evidence, and different from the "miss not verbing" construction.

    I don't find myl's conjecture that "miss not VERBing" is original in English, but wonder whether it's rather one of those negation problems we seem to have.

  32. Keith M Ellis said,

    February 4, 2011 @ 1:17 am

    This kind of formation seems more logically straightforward and literal-minded (but it definitely seems to be less common). Perhaps this is because it's only sensible in a few particular situations (or so it seems to me).

    I use this construction relatively frequently; although (as Erik mentions), perhaps mostly only in the "missing not having an obligation" sense?

    I'm much more descriptivist than prescriptivist, but I find examples like this one confounding. Specifically, this double-negative-intensifier usage seems completely and utterly unfamiliar to me; although I suppose that I may have misunderstood someone's usage of it in the past. Anyway, comments here indicate that some find it very unfamiliar and quite difficult to parse sensibly, while others find it very familiar and natural. Unless there's some pattern to these usage variances—geographical or class or whatever—it's hard to understand how either a simple descriptive or prescriptive approach to this usage makes sense.

    But there has to be some pattern to the usage variations, surely?

  33. Laura said,

    February 4, 2011 @ 3:28 am

    It may not be all that funny but it makes perfect logical sense to me – the dog barks at the postman, as dogs traditionally do, and now there is email to bark at he is barking every day, because there is always new email. He misses the days when there was no post delivered and he didn't have to bark. No misnegation, on my interpretation. I would never have got the other reading, and still don't, really, though the other examples cited are clear enough.

  34. maidhc said,

    February 4, 2011 @ 4:22 am

    Beetle Bailey rarely makes sense, even on its best days.

    And @Chris, I have only two words for you: Fred Bassett

  35. Richard Sabey said,

    February 4, 2011 @ 4:50 am

    There is misnegation, certainly, but I don't accept the notion that this is the same as the "double negative" whose objectors you so like objecting to. A double/multiple negative has two or more simple explicit negations: of the subject, or the verb, or an object (if any), or an adverb that qualifies the verb, or whatever. If someone says a double negative, it's easy for the listener to spot it and be on the alert for overnegation, because it is unusual to have explicit negatives in two such closely-related places and for each to have its own separate negating force. By contrast, here, "miss" is only "negative" in the sense that it expresses a feeling which we listeners gather the speaker would rather not feel; it is not negative syntactically. Therefore, for me, it doesn't trigger any obligation to be tolerant of double negatives and to ignore any further negatives.

    @Dan Yes, but was it Sarge's words that made you laugh, or were you already laughing at the dog?

  36. Plegmund said,

    February 4, 2011 @ 6:34 am

    The Hagar strip seems particularly illuminating, because (as I presume) Hagar never had a nine-to-five job, so he can't miss it in the ordinary sense. This seems like strong support for the 'regret' interpretation.

  37. Erik said,

    February 4, 2011 @ 9:58 am

    Richard, I think that there is definitely a sense in which this is a double negation. When someone says "I miss X", the "negation" that we're referring to is not the negative emotion, but the implication that X is no longer present. So "I miss my kids" implies that the kids aren't around and "I miss having you around" implies that you're not around. The funny thing is that "I miss not having you around" almost always is intended to mean the same thing as "I miss having you around". And in fact, there are contexts in which some people use "miss not" in the non-concordant* sense as in "I miss not having to shovel my driveway." That's why it seems like an issue of double negation, unlike with words like "regret" which communicate a negative emotion but that do not imply an absence. Of course, as people have mentioned here, one possibility for this is that people are sometimes reinterpreting "miss" as "regret". (Although I'd be surprised if they never used it in the standard sense (implying an absence).)

    *I don't know what the word is for that non-concordant negation that I (as a logician) think of as the "normal" negation, where nesting negations do not interact (and for example, "not not X" means that "X" doesn't fail to happen). Is there a word for that?

  38. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    February 4, 2011 @ 10:49 am

    @Mark P: I totally agree; the existing punch-line is really hard to understand, but your version is perfectly natural and intelligible, and I have no idea why!

  39. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    February 4, 2011 @ 11:02 am

    I agree with Laura. No extra negation. There used to be days when the mailman didn't come, and those days had no obligatory barking. Notice how much the dog is barking in the second panel. He misses the bark-free days.

  40. Nathan Myers said,

    February 4, 2011 @ 5:06 pm

    Skullturf must be on drugs. Dogs love barking, but they especially like barking at postal carriers.

    I'm not sure that the "ode" example qualifies. Not being able to write a satisfactory ode is the most plangent experience in any poet's life, and the leisure to so strive is something to miss keenly.

  41. Elly said,

    February 5, 2011 @ 12:05 am

    I am quite certain that I use this construction, but since it isn't something I see in print a whole lot, I never thought deeply about it until now. So, yes, once I sit here and think about it, I agree that it doesn't actually make the sense that you think it does while you are saying it. (20s, hail from Mid-Atlantic US originally).

  42. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 5, 2011 @ 12:36 pm

    "How much you will miss not hearing the catechism classes on Sundays!"

    Anon., Early Friendship; or, The Two Catechumens, 1845.

    I would miss not hearing catechism classes if I had to hear them, but it's clear that the youngsters enjoy their classes.

  43. MJ said,

    February 5, 2011 @ 9:00 pm

    FWIW, Greg Walker, the cowriter of the strip, confirms that they meant days when Sarge just didn't get any mail and Otto misses barking at the mailman.

  44. February Links « Literal-Minded said,

    February 12, 2011 @ 11:20 am

    […] One of my earliest posts was on the strange negation in the miss not doing construction, and I wrote about it again in 2007. Now Mark Liberman has a post on Language Log on the history of this construction. […]

  45. Avery said,

    February 14, 2011 @ 12:38 am

    I have long been puzzled by an English lyric from Japanese game music: "Why, why, why don't I miss you a lot forever?"

    Why ask why?

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