Hypernegative "miss not" in Hemingway

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Larry Horn posted this to the American Dialect Society's mailing list a couple of days ago:

One of the bêtes noires of the prescriptivists is "miss not Xing" in the sense of 'miss Xing'.  Here, for example, is Lederer:

Let's look at a number of familiar English words and phrases that turn out to mean the opposite or something very different from what we think they mean: […]

I really miss not seeing you. Whenever people say this to me, I feel like responding, "All right, I'll leave!" Here speakers throw in a gratuitous negative, not, even though I really miss seeing you is what they want to say.

OK, a classic instance of hypernegation in colloquial language, presumable edited out of careful prose.  The examples I had previously collected are from informal speech, TV dialogue, blogs, etc.  But here is Ernest Hemingway, writing in A Moveable Feast, describing an ill-fated trip in the 1920's he had taken with Scott Fitzgerald from Paris to Lyon and back.  Fitzgerald comes across as gifted but quite unsympathetic–malingering, self-indulgent, drunk, and needy, who is now ordering Hemingway to fetch a thermometer to confirm that he (Fitzgerald) is dying of "congestion of the lungs". Hemingway is fed up, reflecting (at least in retrospect–he actually wrote the manuscript decades later in 1960) as follows:

Scott was lying with with his eyes closed, breathing slowly and carefully and, with his waxy color and his perfect features, he looked like a little dead crusader. I was getting tired of the literary life, if this was the literary life that I was leading, and already I missed not working and I felt the death loneliness that comes at the end of every day that is wasted in your life. I was very tired of Scott and of this silly comedy, but I found the waiter and gave him the money to buy a thermometer and a tube of aspirin and ordered two citron pressés and two double whiskies.

[A Moveable Feast, New York: Scribner's Sons, 1964, p. 165-66]

It's clear from the context that what Hemingway misses is *working*, not *not working*.

Does anyone have any examples handy of other literary (pleonastic) "miss not"s?  I didn't find anything terribly interesting via Google Books, and I couldn't find a relevant entry in the OED under "miss".


Here's one that is literary but unedited, from a letter of Henry James to Charles Eliot Norton, Aug. 28th, 1891:

It is only the conspiracy of hindrances so perpetually characteristic of life in this place, even when it is theoretically not alive, as in the mid-August, that has stayed my hand, for days past, when it has most longed to write to you. Dear Lowell's death—the words are almost as difficult as they are odious to write—has made me think almost as much of you as of him. I imagine that you are the person in the world to whom it makes the most complete and constant difference that he is no longer here; just as you must have been the one most closely associated with the too vain watching of his last struggle with the monster. It is a dim satisfaction to me, therefore, to say to you how fond I was of him and how I shall miss him and miss him and miss him.
[…]
I am not trying to characterize him, to you least of all who had known him well so much longer and seen all, or most, of the chapters of his history; but only letting you see how much I wish we might talk of him together. Some day we will, though it's a date that seems unfixable now. I am taking for granted . . . that you inherit the greatest of literary responsibilities to his memory. I think of this as a very high interest, but also a very arduous labour. It's a blessing, however, to feel that such an office is in such hands as yours. The posthumous vulgarities of our day add another grimness to death. Here again is another matter as to which I really miss not having the opportunity to talk with you.

It's easy to find published (and presumably edited) examples in the writing of lesser literary lights. For example, from Elizabeth Missing Sewell's A Glimpse of the World, London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, & Green, 1863:

It was a well-arranged little plan which, being put into the right groove, ran very smoothly, and Myra was grateful and happy, and wondered that everyone should be so considerate for her. She had indeed but one regret — for Rosamond, who she thought would miss not having some one to whom she could speak of Mr. Verney.

Ms. Sewell's contribution was previously discussed in "Miss not", 2/3/2011, which began with the citation of another classic (if not literary source), namely Beetle Bailey for 2/2/2011.

Meanwhile, I'll add this one to our list of ~75 misnegation-related posts, "No post too obscure to escape notice".



14 Comments

  1. James said,

    October 8, 2011 @ 9:01 am

    I'm a little unclear on what's going on here.

    I really hate to join Richard Lederer's side, but to me all the literary examples sound like mistakes. Is the idea here that they are not mistakes but merely an interesting usage? I'm a bit skeptical about that. What's the evidence?

    [(myl) You'll find some discussion of the issues, and plenty of evidence, here. You might start with this.]

  2. David Denison said,

    October 8, 2011 @ 9:42 am

    Here are a couple:

    Sometimes her solitary existence is painful. When she is sick she misses having no one to take care of her; sometimes she regrets that she has no one from whom to ask advice; sometimes she wants to share her joys.
    (1994 Theodore Zeldin, An intimate history of humanity (Sinclair-Stevenson), iii.45)

    Because he missed not being with his fiancée, Bella, who was still in Vitebsk, "He thought about her day and night," writes Baal-Teshuva, and was afraid of losing her.
    (Wikipedia entry for Marc Chagall

    I see the latter is now corrected to

    Because he missed his fiancée, Bella, who was still in Vitebsk, "He thought about her day and night", writes Baal-Teshuva, and was afraid of losing her. (Wikipedia entry for Marc Chagall

  3. James said,

    October 8, 2011 @ 9:50 am

    Thank you, myl. I surmise that you agree that it's a mistake. Because although there is no (obvious) discussion in the earlier over-negation posts of "not miss", the gist of the collection of them is that over-negation is a genuine mistake. I just wasn't sure whether "not miss" was really over-negation.

    [(myl) Actually there are several discussions of "miss not" in that list, starting with the post titled "Miss not". I generally agree with Larry Horn's analysis in his paper "The expression of negation" (quoted and cited and linked in that "Miss not" post), which is that these expressions plausibly originate as a fusion of e.g. "I miss seeing you" and "I regret not seeing you". Such a fusion may become idiomatic, as it seems to have done for many English speakers over the past 150 years or so.

    The question of whether or not this is a "mistake" is not an especially relevant one, in my opinion — why is it important to you?]

  4. David Denison said,

    October 8, 2011 @ 10:20 am

    I had the lookup dates for Wikipedia in caret brackets, and they've been eaten by the software. The earlier entry with 'missed not being' was accessed on 22 Nov 2009; the corrected entry was access today, 8 Oct 2011.

  5. James said,

    October 8, 2011 @ 10:31 am

    Oh, sorry, I missed the obviously relevant item in the list.

    I wouldn't say that this question is "important to" me. I think it's always interesting whether a usage is a mistake or an odd part of the language, because I think it's an interesting question what makes something (a word, but more interesting a construction) part of the language. If one thinks there is such a thing as correct and incorrect usage, and one is somewhat curious, the question of what it is in virtue of which some constructions are correct and others are not, becomes an interesting question. Over-negation is a particularly interesting example, because there are fairly systematic performance errors.

    You say it isn't "relevant"; I don't see what you mean. Relevant to what? Or did you just mean that it doesn't interest you?

    [(myl) If this phenomenon represents the development of an idiomatic sense for certain constructions involving the verb "miss", then copy editors need to care deeply about when to stop calling it a "mistake" and start calling it "English. For linguists, this is essentially a political question, and is therefore more of sociological than logical interest. (Linguists are interested in both sociology and in logic, but in different ways and for different reasons.)

    Perhaps an analogy will help. In genetics, a mutation is in some sense originally a "mistake" in DNA replication; it may stick around in the gene pool as a lower-frequency variant, or it may increase in frequency and even become "fixed" in a species or sub-species. The question of whether a particular mutation should be accepted or rejected is of great interest to dog breeders, for example, but is less central or even irrelevant from the point of view of a population geneticist studying the evolution of a species in the wild.

    In this case, Larry's original query was focused on the question of how good writers and good editors have treated this construction over the past century or two. This is relevant to the sociological question, but also to the logical one of whether it's something more than an occasional slip of the brain.

    Of course, in the case of English, the loss of negative concord was originally a "mistake" which has long since become standard, although it lingers in many non-standard varieties, and perhaps is in implicit tendency in the standard language as well. In some cases, at least, "misnegation" issues may reflect this tension. ]

  6. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 8, 2011 @ 11:49 am

    Are we collecting examples in literature? Here's a slightly different one:

    "I missed never having played that game of blackjack with him."

    Joshua Spanogle, Flawless (2008).

  7. James said,

    October 8, 2011 @ 11:57 am

    Ah, yes, of course.

    My interest is not exactly either the copy editor's or the linguist's. It is more philosophical. Some things can be correct and incorrect; other things have only patterns of similarity with their predecessors. Sentences, of course, can be semantically correct or incorrect (that is, true or false), but they can also be grammatical and ungrammatical. I don't think of this as a political question, really — there can be political reasons for using incorrect grammar, political reasons for browbeating people who use perfectly correct grammar, and so on.

    The analogy to genetics is interesting. It's true that mutations can be thought of as mistakes when they first happen. Biology is shot through with teleological language. Still, it seems to me that teleology is fully present only in human activity: playing the Moonlight Sonata, dancing the waltz, playing baseball, speaking English (or New England standard dialect, or get as specific as you like). Only these kinds of things can genuinely be done correctly and incorrectly. It is then a separate question whether, on any particular occasion, one or the other of them should be done correctly.

    But since languages change over time, it is not obvious what makes things said correct and incorrect (at a given time). It's not simply what people say or write, since everyone acknowledges saying or writing things incorrectly sometimes. It's not even what people can see upon immediate reflection not to be in keeping with their general intentions, since the "no X is too Y to be ignored" examples are pretty plainly mistakes that we have a hard time seeing even when they're pointed out to us. (LL readers are now highly sensitized to them, but we remember when we were genuinely puzzled about what was supposed to be wrong with them.)

    Anyway, I accept the verdict of Not Relevant to Linguistics. I guess I'm interested in aspects of language that are not particularly relevant to linguistics.

  8. marie-lucie said,

    October 8, 2011 @ 2:27 pm

    As a non-native speaker, I don't know what my comment is worth, but I don't think I would have even noticed the "overnegation" of "miss not" in the examples presented, since it seems very familiar to me. The earlier discussion ("Mind Not", referenced above) and the excerpt from Larry Horn's work there cover some points I was about to make.

    One of the commenters there mentioned the fact that "miss not" occurs when there is an expectation that something should be happening or should have happened, rather than a statement that something does or did not happen. I agree that in the literary examples quoted, what is "missed not" is in the relative future, while "miss" alone refers to, or implies, the past:

    (Hemingway) I missed not working : normally I would have been working, and I resented the fact that I was prevented from working;
    vs I missed working or I missed my work (eg after retirement).

    (James) how much I wish we might talk of him together. Some day we will, …. I really miss not having the opportunity to talk with you (an opporunity that I normally would have).
    vs. I miss having the opportunity to talk with you (as we did in the past ??).

    (Sewell) It was a well-arranged little plan … She had indeed but one regret — for Rosamond, who she thought would miss not having someone to whom she could speak of Mr. Verney. (The existence of the 'little plan' – for the future – is important here, since Rosamund normally would continue to have someone, etc if the plan did not interfere).

    Having a negative clause after a verb with negative connotation or a negative marker is common in other languages, such as Latin (ne + subjunctive), French (ditto), Spanish, so English may be starting to follow a common semantico-syntactic pattern.

    In addition, as someone mentioned, there seems to be an amalgam of the meanings of "miss" and "regret", but only with the negative: I miss = regret not seeing you. However, "regret Xing" often has a connotation of remorse, while "miss" only denotes the feeling of "be sorry, rueful", but if "miss" comes to be practically equivalent to "regret", I miss seeing you might seem to some speakers to mean I regret seeing you, I wish I had not seen you, hence the necessity of the negation after "miss".

  9. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 8, 2011 @ 5:26 pm

    I suppose that an example of what Marie-Lucie meant by "a negative clause after a verb with negative connotation or a negative marker" is the French craindre ('to fear'), where the action that is feared requires ne when it's expressed by a finite verb. Oddly enough, this "illogical" ne is usually skipped in the colloquial language.

  10. marie-lucie said,

    October 8, 2011 @ 7:11 pm

    Yes, craindre is the standrd example, but there are a few others. Ne is also used before in a clause beginning with avant que, which seems to confirm my remark above about denied expectation playing a role in negation.

    It is not so odd that ne should be omitted colloquially in these cases, because ne is usually omitted in negations generally. The reinforcing words such as pas or rien have long absorbed the negative meaning, and are therefore sufficient to indicate negativity.

  11. maidhc said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 12:23 am

    Isn't it along the same lines as "I could care less"?

  12. marie-lucie said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 9:19 am

    maidhc, I thought about that one too, in reverse. (It was discussed on LL, quite some time ago).

    I don't remember if the following point was made: it seems to me that there is a parallel or perhaps mirror image effect between I couldn't agree more (meaning 'i completely agree' rather than 'I could agree up to apoint, but not more') and I could care less replacing the standard I couldn't care less (with the meaning 'I don't care at all', rather than 'I could care a certain amount but not less'). The formal negative is needed with the semantically positive "more", but must seem awkward to some speakers if associated with the semantically negative "less" (where it may seem to be the stigmatized "double negative").

    Perhaps this reverse polarity is also related to that of tag questions: "You don't care, do you?" or "They are good, aren't they?" which are so puzzling and so hard to get used to when learning English.

  13. Tom Recht said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 11:11 pm

    Having a negative clause after a verb with negative connotation or a negative marker is common in other languages, such as Latin (ne + subjunctive)

    Not only that, but in Latin, at least, if the clause itself is semantically negative then you add another negator, and the two can optionally cancel out:

    Vereor ne veniat, 'I fear that he may come'
    Vereor ne non veniat, 'I fear that he may not come'
    Vereor ut veniat, 'I fear that he may not come'
    I could never wrap my head around that last construction, with its lack of any explicit negation, until I started mentally translating the verb as 'be anxious' rather than 'fear': 'I am anxious for him to come' ~= 'I fear that he may not come'.

    How does French code a semantically negative clause after such a verb? Is it e.g. Je crains qu'il ne vienne vs. Je crains qu'il ne vienne pas?

  14. marie-lucie said,

    October 10, 2011 @ 6:40 pm

    How does French code a semantically negative clause after such a verb? Is it e.g. Je crains qu'il ne vienne vs. Je crains qu'il ne vienne pas?

    – Yes.

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