Partial negative concord

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Steven Hsieh, "Joking Around: We spoke with that Carlsbad city councilor with the sexist Facebook post", SF Reporter 1/24/2017 [emphasis added]:

Carlsbad City Councilor JR Doporto drew widespread criticism today after KOB 4 highlighted a Facebook post he wrote mocking women who participated in Saturday's nationwide demonstrations against President Donald Trump. […]

After angry comments rained down on his Facebook page, he doubled down on his jokes with additional posts. […]

We caught up with Doporto this afternoon on the phone to hear his thoughts. […]

Q: I don't think anyone is disputing that you have the right to say what you want to say. I guess the question was: The march was for women's rights. And the particular joke you made was disparaging towards women and some of the stereotypes you used were—it seemed you were thumbing your nose at what was taking place. Does that make sense to you?

A: Yeah, yeah. I was thumbing my nose at what was taking place. Enough already. Let's get on. Women have had rights for … years that I have been alive. I don't see no rights they don't have that a man has. When are they going to get on and move on? I believe if a Democratic president was elected, Hillary, I don't think we would've had those protests.

Karen Sumner, who sent me the link, commented: "This is likely an example of a simple and easily-recognized language thing to Language Log folks, but I scratched my head when I saw it. Still scratching, to be honest."

What's puzzling here is that negative concord is responsible for the second negation ("no rights"), but the third one ("don't have") is an independent aspect of the sentence's meaning — though it could also have been spread by negative concord.

Thus Bill Labov's celebrated example "It ain't no cat can't get in no coop" is equivalent to standard "There's no cat that can get in any coop", where negative concord has spread the negation not only to the object "no cat" but also (twice) into the relative clause "can't get in no coop". On that model, Mr. Doporto's "I don't see no rights they don't have that a man has" would be equivalent to standard "I don't see any rights (that) they have that a man has". And in context, that would be a definite head-scratcher.

But what seems to have happened is that Doporto indeed spread the negation to the object "no rights", but he already meant to put an independent negation on the relative clause "that they don't have". And he (for that reason?) he didn't spread negation to the second clause "that a man has". So what he meant, in standard formal English, would be something like "I don't see any rights that a man has that women don't also have".

This is logically consistent with the tweet that got him into trouble in the first place, since it refers to "rights" that women have that men presumably don't:



  1. Partial negative concord • Zhi Chinese said,

    January 26, 2017 @ 10:12 pm

    […] Source: Language Partial negative concord […]

  2. AntC said,

    January 26, 2017 @ 11:06 pm

    the tweet that got him into trouble in the first place,

    You mean the "playoffs our on." [sic] Perhaps this guy doesn't have a very good grip of English? Then it wouldn't be Politically Correct to mock his disability.

    [(myl) His problem seems to have been the clarity and eloquence of his rhetoric, not any communicative disabiity.]

  3. D.O. said,

    January 27, 2017 @ 12:45 am

    I am not against public officials trying to be funny, but can they get better at it than proverbial good enough for government work.

  4. Mark Mandel said,

    January 27, 2017 @ 1:51 am

    The comments that come to my mind are more political and visceral than linguistic and cogent, so I'll just leave it at that.

  5. Keith said,

    January 27, 2017 @ 3:09 am

    I agree with ML. For me, "I don't see no rights they don't have that a man has" is equivalent to "I don't see any rights that a man has, but that a woman doesn't have".

    Doporto's phrase strikes me as a stereotypically American construction, one that I would never use but that is quite transparent.

    The problem with such phrases, though, is their possible ambiguity. It's probably not too difficult to construct a phrase that can be strictly (and slowly) parsed to give one meaning while being instinctively (and quickly) understood to have the opposite meaning.

  6. Robert T McQuaid said,

    January 27, 2017 @ 5:22 am

    I don't see no rights they don't have that a man has.

    Simply construed as: I don't see any rights they lack that a man has.

  7. Mr Punch said,

    January 27, 2017 @ 7:34 am

    Pretty clear, if not perfectly; "no" for "any" is common vernacular usage.

  8. Grover Jones said,

    January 27, 2017 @ 8:45 am

    He probably actually meant "that a man DOESN'T have." Maybe?

  9. Robert Coren said,

    January 27, 2017 @ 10:35 am

    My intuitive reading of "It ain't no cat can't get in no coop" is that there's no cat that *can't* get into any coop if it wants to. But I gather that it doesn't mean that.

  10. Bill Taylor said,

    January 27, 2017 @ 12:25 pm

    @Robert Coren Yes – my intuitive reading, too. But (Google Books to the rescue!) the original publication has some clarifying context.

  11. Viseguy said,

    January 27, 2017 @ 3:22 pm

    My reading was, "If it can't get into a coop, it isn't a (real) cat" — probably even further from the intended meaning. Or is it, "If a cat can get into it, it isn't a real coop." I dunno.

  12. Gregory Kusnick said,

    January 27, 2017 @ 4:37 pm

    Bill Taylor: No doubt there's a substantial literature on this of which I'm ignorant, but it's still not clear to me, even in context, that Speedy is saying the opposite of what Robert Coren thinks he's saying. My reading would still be something along the lines of "Cats are good at getting into coops (especially 'them jive coops'), but no cat ever got into one of my coops."

  13. Outeast said,

    January 30, 2017 @ 2:32 am

    I'm almost certain that Coren is indeed missing the meaning. Speedy IS saying "any cat can get into any coop", and he's not contradicting himself – because he's not talking about felines and chicken coops any more.

    As far as I can ascertain from an admittedly cursory search, there's never been a common expression "jive coop"; and since " jive" is a positive attribute, the idea of a "jive coop" being more vulnerable than any other coop just doesn't make sense on the face of it. I think it's building on "cat" as in "jive cat"; a " jive coop" would be the kind of "coop" a "jive cat" would want to get into (a woman's good graces, probably).

    Speedy, I think, is joking that sure, you can keep a cat (animal) out of a (literal) coop, but there ain't no way to keep a cat (cool guy) from the goodies. I'm pretty sure this is what's going on – partly because the "jive coop" joke just doesn't make sense without some such interpretation, and Speedy's laughter as he says what he does makes it seem like (a) he found it funny and (b) he's building on the joke.

  14. Outeast said,

    January 30, 2017 @ 5:42 am

    Pigeon, not chicken. Obviously.

  15. Andrew Usher said,

    January 30, 2017 @ 8:43 am

    Seems this discussion has shown that full negative concord creates ambiguity, which is why it's fortunate that English (and most European languages) don't have it. Rather, speakers that use 'double negatives' can only use them in certain ways – the most common being that that Mr. Doporto used here, the substitution of 'no' for 'any' in the standard don't … any ; this creates hardly any confusion but is still associated with 'illiterate people'. When that is seen, his sentence is logically and factually sound.

    k_over_hbarc at

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