If we have learned nothing in this election

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From Allison Stanger, "Understanding the Angry Mob at Middlebury That Gave Me a Concussion", NYT 3/13/2017 [emphasis added]:

Students are in college in part to learn how to evaluate sources and follow up on ideas with their own research. The Southern Poverty Law Center incorrectly labels Dr. Murray a “white nationalist,” but if we have learned nothing in this election, it is that such claims must be fact-checked, analyzed and assessed. Faulty information became the catalyst for shutting off the free exchange of ideas at Middlebury.

Ms. Stanger presumably meant "… if we have learned anything in this election, it is that …"

Or maybe "… if we have learned nothing else in this election, it is that …"?

Anyhow, this seems to be one for the misnegation files.

Update — in the comments, Anne Cutler suggests that the target was actually "… if we have learned one thing in this election, it is that …" This seems to me to be the most plausible hypothesis yet.

Another commenter suggests that "if we have learned nothing" has become an idiom similar to "could care less", which we've discussed extensively over the years.  It's certainly true that there are plenty of other examples — in the first 30 hits for "if we have learned nothing" from the current Google News index, we find e.g.

If we have learned nothing from our nation's new secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, it's that our schoolchildren are confronting a dire threat …
If we have learned nothing from 2016 we have learned that life is messy and complicated, and things don't always go as planned.
But if we have learned nothing about mass media, it is that networks can never be content with just one success.

But the 27 other hits are all "if we can learned nothing else …"

[h/t Anne Cutler]


  1. Phillip Minden said,

    March 14, 2017 @ 3:55 am

    Surely "nothing else".

  2. Susan said,

    March 14, 2017 @ 7:44 am

    Maybe misnegation, but the same thing occurs with "I couldn't care less" when it used incorrectly as "I could care less". And I don't believe that is misnegation. A simpler explanation would be that humans don't semantically break down such a phrase, but merely have certain phrases, such as learned phrases, idioms, or complex phrases too difficult to parse memorized. It's easier on their brains. And sometimes they just memorize the phrase wrong or become nervous in public settings, like in your example.

    For example, I have a hard time with "let alone", as in "For an native speaker of English, Russian is hard to learn, let alone Arabic". I sometimes want to say "yet alone" because of phonological and morphological reasons. So I just choose to memorize it as "let alone", without actually parsing it, so as not to risk embarrassing myself in public and to be able to speak quickly before I am interrupted (by men usually).

  3. RP said,

    March 14, 2017 @ 7:58 am

    "Anything" works better than "nothing else".

    "If we have learned anything this election, it is…" makes sense.

    But "if we have learned nothing else this election, it is…" sounds borderline ungrammatical. If I were using "nothing else", I'd write "if we have learned nothing else this election, what we have learned is…".

  4. Phillip Minden said,

    March 14, 2017 @ 8:01 am

    I disagree, for real life usage.

  5. Anne Cutler said,

    March 14, 2017 @ 8:10 am

    When I called Mark's attention to this sentence, I thought that what the writer ought to have written was "If we have learned one thing…., it is" – doesn't that fit better with the following "it" ? And maybe it's not accidental that "one" also shares sounds with the first syllable of "nothing".

  6. RP said,

    March 14, 2017 @ 8:12 am

    Perhaps you are right, but what makes you confident that "nothing else" was the intention? Is it simply that you assume is it easier for the word "else" to be accidentally omitted than for "nothing" to appear where "anything" would make more sense?

  7. RP said,

    March 14, 2017 @ 8:29 am

    I think "anything" and "one thing" work equally well.

    I pronounce "one" with the LOT vowel, and "nothing" with STRUT, but I know some people who use STRUT for both.

  8. Phillip Minden said,

    March 14, 2017 @ 8:43 am

    Yes, "one thing" works very well, too. "Anything" is just less idiomatic here, I find. So, probably a conflation of "one thing" and "nothing". I'm not sure the vowels, identical in most accents, plays a role.

  9. Phillip Minden said,

    March 14, 2017 @ 8:45 am

    "One thing" and "nothing else", I mean.

  10. cs said,

    March 14, 2017 @ 9:02 am

    Off topic, but I wonder what types of claims are meant by the phrase "such claims" in the quoted paragraph. Claims that somebody is a white nationalist or has some kind of bias? Or negative claims about people in general? Or even more generally any type of potentially partisan claim from a potentially partisan source?

  11. Anonymous Coward said,

    March 14, 2017 @ 11:20 am

    Cupertino for onething?

  12. Arthur Baker said,

    March 14, 2017 @ 3:31 pm

    I don't think "I could care less" is misnegation. Take a look at this online article: http://blog.dictionary.com/could-care-less/


    Etymologists suggest that “I could care less” emerged as a sarcastic variant employing Yiddish humor. They point to the different intonations used in saying “I couldn’t care less” versus “I could care less.” The latter mirrors the intonation of the sarcastic Yiddish-English phrase “I should be so lucky!” where the verb is stressed.

    End quote

    I recommend you read the full article. But perhaps not all the comments, of which there are 272.

    [(myl) Or you could read some of our dozen or so posts on the topic over the years…]

  13. peterv said,

    March 14, 2017 @ 6:37 pm

    Reminds me of the old line from a vaudeville comedian (perhaps Groucho Marx) to his wife on her birthday:

    "Nothing is too good for you, so that is what I got you."

  14. Dr. Decay said,

    March 15, 2017 @ 7:12 am

    "If we have learned nothing in this election … I wouldn't be suprised."

    with apologies to Dorothy Parker.

  15. Rodger C said,

    March 15, 2017 @ 12:35 pm

    Monk: Master, I come to you bringing nothing.
    Zhaozhou Congshen: Fine. Set it down over there.
    Monk: But–Master–it's nothing!
    ZZCS: Well, then, take it back with you!

    I might have first learned this story from Martin Gardner.

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