Newt's negation

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Geoff Pullum is, of course, right on the money when he points out that our frequent difficulties in interpreting multiple negations indicate that we are all "semantic over-achievers, trying to use languages that are quite a bit beyond our intellectual powers." Or, as Mark Liberman once put it, negation often overwhelms our "poor monkey brains." (For more, see Mark's master list of Language Log posts on misnegation woes.) Yesterday, Newt Gingrich provided a nice example of the trickiness of negation: even though what he said was technically correct, it was still difficult for some to parse.

On ABC News, Gingrich had the following exchange with Jake Tapper:

GINGRICH: I don't have to go around and point out the inconsistencies of people who are not going to be the nominee. They are not going to be the nominee.

TAPPER: You are going to be the nominee?

GINGRICH: I'm going to be the nominee. It's very hard not to look at the recent polls and think that the odds are very high I'm going to be the nominee.

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On Gawker, Seth Abramovitch wrote:

Wait — it's hard not to look at the recent polls and think that the odds are very high that he will be the nominee? Doesn't he mean it's hard not to look at the recent polls and think that the odds are very high that he won't be the nominee? What kind of convoluted declaration of overwhelming party support is that supposed to be, anyway? If this is the kind of mixed messages were getting this early in his campaign, Newt is all but a goner on election day. He should try not being so decisive in public; it's really not a good look on him.

Regardless of his overweening self-confidence, did Newt misspeak? I don't think so, but it's true that he delivered somewhat of a "convoluted declaration." Rather than saying:

1a. It's very hard not to look at the recent polls and think that the odds are very high I'm going to be the nominee.

it would have been clearer to move the not to the second of the conjoined verbal complements:

1b. It's very hard to look at the recent polls and not think that the odds are very high I'm going to be the nominee.

Both versions are trying to communicate the idea that it is difficult to do one thing without doing another. "Look[ing] at the recent polls," Gingrich contends, necessitates "think[ing] that the odds are very high I'm going to the nominee." Compare Gawker's suggested version:

2a. It's very hard not to look at the recent polls and think that the odds are very high I won't be the nominee.

But that's no good, as there are one too many negations. If the first not is removed, then it would be clearer:

2b. It's very hard to look at the recent polls and think that the odds are very high I won't be the nominee.

That brings us back in line with the gist of 1b: if one looks at the polls, it is difficult to reach the conclusion that Gingrich is not the likely nominee. Abramovitch's confusion is understandable, however, because the formula "It's hard not to do X and do Y" is often quite tricky to wrap our heads around. Such statements can often be improved for clarity by being recast as "It's hard to do X and not do Y" (as in 1b), but very often we end up with an overnegated amalgamation of the two: "It's hard not to do X and not do Y." The equivalent to Gawker's version would be:

3. It's very hard not to look at the recent polls and not think that the odds are very high I'm going to be the nominee.

I presented a number of such examples in my 2006 post, "It's hard not to read this and not do a double-take." I also discussed the overnegated variation, "It's hard not to do X without doing Y," which can likewise be found in abundance. As I wrote at the time:

In both of these variants, there seems to be confusion over the scope of negation for "It's hard not to…" when this opening formula is followed by two conjoined VPs. When in doubt, people frequently overnegate. Sometimes it's hard not to construct a multiple-negation sentence without falling back on vernacular patterns of negative concord.

Thus, if Newt had overnegated, as in versions 2a or 3, it might have sounded slightly better to Abramovitch and others, though it would have been logically muddled. My solution, however, is to abandon the "It's hard not to…" construction entirely in favor of the more straightforward "It's hard to do X and not do Y" (1b). That way listeners don't have to think twice about the scope of negation for not, since the scope will clearly be restricted to the second of the conjoined VPs. But that's just my opinion. Call it my Newt not note.

[Update: Commenters point out that Gingrich's reference to "high odds" adds another layer of ambiguity, further confusing listeners who may already be puzzling over the negation issue. For more on the "odds" ambiguity, see Mark Liberman's post from January and Mignon Fogarty's Grammar Girl post from today.]


  1. DonBoy said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 1:36 pm

    There's yet another possible confusion, but it's not a negation problem. Newt wants to say that the PROBABILITY he will be the nominee is high. Problem is, he said "the odds are very high", and in gambling, high odds means something is NOT expected to happen. That is, if he's getting 10-1, that's higher that 2-1, but it means a lesser chance. But that's usually said as "10-1 against", so that's a sign he doesn't mean that. It's still not helping his clarity, though.

  2. Antonio Fortin said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 1:45 pm

    For me at least, the wide scope reading is unnatural to the point where I only know it's there in theory, if at all. Newt's utterance is gibberish to my ears but that's nothing new.

  3. Ellen K. said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 1:49 pm

    @DonBoy, You may be interested in this Language Log post from January: "The odds of X are large": likely or unlikely?

  4. Alacritas said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 1:51 pm

    On a somewhat unrelated note: was anyone else struck by the stress pattern he uses for "nominee"? I pronounce it /nɔmɪ'ni/ (props to i2speak!), whereas Newt is putting the stress on the first syllable.

    Anyone else out there pronounce it this way, or have any information on this pronunciation?

  5. Kylopod said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 1:53 pm

    Didn't Pinocchio in one of the Shrek movies try this gambit to avoid making his nose grow? It seems quite fitting for a politician.

  6. Chris Waigl said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 1:55 pm

    Uh, wait, how is your 1a equivalent to your 1b? In your rephrasing, one would start "if you do not look at recent polls …" and the other starts with "if you look at recent polls…". Don't they talk about completely different situations, that is, whatever you conclude when not looking at polls doesn't have much of a bearing on what you'd conclude when you look at them.

    [(bgz) I think you're missing the idiomatic force of the construction "It's hard not to do X and do Y." If I say, "It's hard not to see the abandoned puppy and feel sorry for it," I mean that upon seeing the puppy, it is difficult to avoid feeling sorry for it. I don't mean that it's difficult to not see the puppy (and feel sorry for it). That's why it's clearer just to say, "It's hard to see the puppy and not feel sorry for it," so there's no confusion over the scope of not.]

  7. DonBoy said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 1:58 pm

    @Ellen K: And I probably read that one at the time, too. Thanks.

  8. John Lawler said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 2:03 pm

    I think what he's saying might be better with constituent brackets attached:

    It's very hard not
          [look at the recent polls]
    (first infinitive clause)
          [think that
    (second infinitive + complement marker)
               [the odds are very high
    (complement of think that)
                   [I'm going to be the nominee]
    (Complement of odds are very high)

    So the negation spans the conjoined infinitive, which is the rest of the VP.

    By "[…]" I indicate the noticeable pause and inflectional change between the complementizer that, and the complement clause it introduces. I would interpret this as having the functions of getting the complement S announced — thus keeping the conjoined infinitive VP rolling along — and also giving the speaker a little time to focus on the clause itself.

    I think it's more than just technically correct; it's perfectly apropos as delivered, in speech. In writing, it's different; English orthography and punctuation don't always represent English speech very well.

  9. Spell Me Jeff said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 2:31 pm

    The negation comes at an odd spot, sure, but I too think the central issue is (as we've seen elsewhere) ambiguity about what we mean by "high odds." Is it "extreme odds against" or "high probability in favor of"?

  10. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 3:05 pm

    Ben: Thanks for the neat Newt not note.

  11. Dakota said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 4:17 pm

    He's got two chances of being the nominee: slim and none.

  12. KeithB said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 5:14 pm

    As opposed to…?

  13. Orin Hargraves said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 7:52 pm

    If you'll diagram his sentence I will follow your argument anywhere.

  14. Ingrid Jakobsen said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 8:47 pm

    In Australian English, Dakota's comment would be "He's got two chances: Buckley's and none".

  15. Matt McIrvin said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 9:37 pm

    Operator precedence unclear. Consider adding parentheses.

  16. John said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 11:24 pm

    DonBoy and others are right in that Abramovitch is complaining about Newt's odds-making. He would have done better to have said that the odds were "good."

  17. Wesley Leggette said,

    December 3, 2011 @ 12:24 am

    The danger of saying "it's hard … that I won't be the nominee" would certainly be clearer, but surely he's not going to say something that leads to the sound bite "I won't be the nominee".

  18. linda seebach said,

    December 3, 2011 @ 12:27 am

    Tom Lehrer:
    Yes, for Paradise the Southland is my NOMinee
    Jes' give me a ham hock and a grit of HOMiny
    (I always accented the first syllable)

  19. Joyce Melton said,

    December 3, 2011 @ 3:33 am

    I'm reminded of a bumper sticker that doesn't yet exist: Bewt the Newt!

  20. Christopher said,

    December 3, 2011 @ 5:06 pm

    I can't stand Newt Gingrich, so it feels really weird to take his side, but I kind of hate how much of celebrity culture is based on taking off the cuff speech and then complaining that it's not composed as perfectly as a well written speech.

    Especially here, where (negation-wise) he actually said what he meant.

  21. Ryan said,

    December 4, 2011 @ 12:04 pm

    I parsed Gawker's version differently: that it's hard to ignore the polls (not look at the polls) and therefore think he won't win (not think that the odds are high). The claim is that the evidence in the polls is becoming overwhelming consensus, not that the point estimate given the polls is high.

  22. Paul said,

    December 5, 2011 @ 6:24 am

    Could anyone clarify where the argument from logic/grammar ends and where the logic from idiomatic force begins? I take Ben's point about the abandoned puppy but, nevertheless, my first reaction to this bit of speech was to think that I find it very easy not to look at the polls and think Gingrich is likely to be the nominee. I'm taking people's word for it that he is a front runner. I don't particularly care enough about the contest to have realised that previously, and I certainly don't care enough about the contest to seek out the details of poll results. So I have easily avoided looking at the polls, and I have grounds to believe he is a front runner.

    It seems to me that the "monkey brains" argument says that grammar is independent of human minds and that I can't cope properly with the logic of language because I am unfortunate enough to be a human. But the "abandoned puppy" argument says that my human mind is skilled enough to override the obvious logic in order to get to the meaning. So am I not skilled enough to cope with logic, or am I so highly skilled that logic can be bypassed? In other words, why don't the cases of so-called misnegation count as expressions with idiomatic force which overrules the logic of the grammar? Or should the abandoned puppy really be a case of misnegation too?

    Or are we just saying that semantics is about how logicians would like language to work while pragmatics is about how it actually does work? ;-)

  23. spud said,

    December 5, 2011 @ 2:09 pm


    Are you some kind of neat Newt not note nut?

  24. bob said,

    June 24, 2012 @ 8:26 am

    Another example for the "failing to work through how expressions work together" comes from the Oddee aggregator website on 24 June 2012. The topic of the day is "extreme makeup," and in what is apparently intended to be a laudatory mention, the poster says "Fashion East never fails to disappoint, and this was no different." Which seems entirely the reverse of what I would have expected – if Fashion East is always good, it should never disappoint, or perhaps never fail to satisfy.

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