Nothing if not un____

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Jan Eliot's Stone Soup for today:

Ms. Eliot manages to come out even, while deploying three negatives in six words. A quick scan of "nothing if not un___" on the web suggests that such phrases are generally well calculated, unlike the many examples where "Multiplex negatio ferblondiat".

There are two plausible and obvious theories, both of which are may be valid to some extent:

1. The sequence "nothing if not" has been lexicalized as an intensifier, typically applied to predicatives in the complement of to be. As a result, its two internal negatives become irrelevant to further calculations, and e.g. "I'm nothing if not unorthodox" is no more problematic than "I'm quite unorthodox".

2. What really confuses us is the interaction of negations with scalar predicates and/or modals, as in the famous "No head injury is too trivial to ignore". An example like "nothing if not unorthodox" has no such interactions.

For a long list of Language Log posts on misnegation, see here.

And there's a distinguished tradition of Unitarian jokes, of which we've noted only a few.


  1. John Logan said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 7:07 am

    Additionally, although the final panel works on a religion-based level, the sound of the 'un' segment doesn't, even though the orthography matches.

  2. jan said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 9:55 am

    I noticed the line break, uni-tarian. I think the cartoonist should have broken the line at un-itarian, to make it match "un-orthodox". Maybe not logical, but funny.

  3. Rubrick said,

    July 22, 2011 @ 4:31 am

    Self-observation is a tricky business, of course, but I'd be willing to bet a moderate sum that theory 1 is primarily what is operating in my own brain. I think I would find the barely-altered "You aren't anything if not unorthodox" quite a tricky specimen to parse.

  4. AlexK said,

    July 23, 2011 @ 10:32 pm

    English being my third language, I still find stuff like that hard to parse. I mean, I am quite fluent in English, in fact I have native-like proficiency, but I guess I had so little exposure to multiple negations negations in English… The hardest for me is still "I couldn't help but X"
    In Russian, which is my mother tongue, multiple negation is accepted and amounts to one negation. i.e. Standard Russian "He didn't do nothing" = English "He didn't do anything".
    My L2 is Quebecois French, and a few vernacular dialects also allow multiple negations to count as one. i.e. Vernacular QC French "On n'a pas rien acheté nullepart/we didn't buy nothing nowhere" = English "We didn't buy anything anywhere"

    Anyone has any input on NPI Licensing in English?

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