Double lie toe tease

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From Larry Horn, an example of triple negation found in Chad Harbach's 2011 novel, The Art of Fielding. As discussed in "Newt's not not engaging", 12/11/2011, Larry has previously argued that in some cases "double negatives may fail to completely cancel out, instead amounting to a weaker positive than their target would have provided". In his latest find, the triple negative analogously amount to a weakened negative.

Context: Pella Affenlight is sharing an uncomfortable maybe-goodbye dinner at an over-the-hill French restaurant in Westish, Wisconsin with her obnoxious estranged architect husband David, who is trying to remind her about their having made love the previous Christmas when he gave her a pair of sapphire and platinum earrings he now produces at the table. Pella doesn't remember either the sex or the earrings, but the latter do look somewhat familiar to her as well as "gorgeous", and she muses to herself:

She'd have to be crazy not to remember those earrings, and she was clearly not crazy. Opaquely not crazy. Not not not crazy.

Larry explains:

The key point is that "not not not crazy" is (not just opaquely but clearly) compositional here, rather than (as in all the other examples I can find on the web) simply emphatic.

For example, in the title of Judith Viorst's 2005 Musical "Alexander, Who's Not Not Not Not Not Not Going to Move", each "not" but the actual negation is a stand-in for "really", and the odd vs. even number of nots doesn't matter. In Pella's internal monologue, on the other hand, each "not" has its semantic value and the following scale is invoked (in increasingly degrees of sanity):

not not not crazy << opaquely not crazy << not crazy << clearly not crazy

(Although I confess I'm not entirely sure about the ranking of the two strongest items on the right.)

Being "not not not P" stands in the same (i.e., weaker) relation to being "not P" that being "not not P" stands with respect to being "P".

The use of "not not P" as a weaker form of "P" is illustrated in this passage from The Simpsons, Season 11 Episode 5:

Bart:       Dad, are you licking toads?
Homer:   I’m not NOT licking toads.

The toads in question are putatively hallucinogenic Microasian red toads. There is, of course, a band named Not Not Licking Toads.

Another example is this exchange from "Seventh Heaven", 2001:

Lucy:      Are you friends with Mary?
Robbie: I'm not NOT friends with her.

Additional examples:

We went back a long way, and while we weren’t exactly friends, we weren’t exactly not friends. [Robert B. Parker, Rough Weather, 2008]

I have a dog. I got him because I am allergic to cats and I wanted my children to be happy…I love my children. I love my husband. They love the dog. I don’t not-love him, exactly. [Judith Warner, “Dogged By Guilt”, NYT 28 August 2008]

“Do you support the [anti-vivisection] movement?” Hathor asked.
“No,” I said.  “But I don’t not support it, either.  I want to understand its dynamics, get a fix on who’s attracted to the cause and why.
[Blaire French, The Ticking Tenure Clock, 1998]

In the "not not" cases above, including I think Pella's "not not not" case, the apparent contradictory and hence semantically mutually-cancelling double negation is pragmatically coerced into a contradictory-of-contrary interpretation, so "not not friends" works like "not unfriendly", where there's an unexcluded middle between being A and being un-A.  You can be on neither friendly terms nor unfriendly terms with someone, and thus not unfriendly is weaker than being friendly.  Similarly, licking toads unilaterally entails not not licking them, and being not crazy unilaterally entails being not not not crazy, so that being not not not crazy entails (more or less) being not not sane.

One question is whether Pella's "not not not P" is more naturally read as [not [not not [P]]] or as [[not not] not P]; given the contrast with [opaquely [not P]] and [clearly [not P]], the latter constituency makes more sense to me. If we could hear Pella, and not just the guy doing the reading on my audiobook, we could check where the fall-rise goes, but since this is a fictional thought rather than a fictional utterance, it might be tricky to resolve this in any nearby possible world.

(myl) It may help to have bit more of the context in Harbach's novel for the "not not not crazy" passage:

"Bella. You don't remember the last time we made love?"

Pella tried to remember. But why should she remember? They'd made love less frequently, and then they'd stopped. It wasn't like there'd been some kind of ceremony, or even a conscious decision.

"It was Christmas Day," david said. 'The day I gave you these." He reached into his inside jacket pocket and pulled out a tiny manila envelope. He undid the flap and shook out onto the tablecloth two gorgeous teardrop earrings, sapphire and platinum. Pella had never seen them before. Or had she?

"You're crazy," she said.

"I thought you might want to keep them. I don't have much use for them myself."

Pella resisted the urge to pick one up. "We did not have sex on Christmas," she said.

David fixed her with a calm, pitying expression, the kind that usually preceded some calmly phrased suggestion — that she should calm down, or drink some water, or consider seeing someone. "Bella", he said reprovingly. "You know I hate it when you do this."

"Do what?"

"Pretend that you don't remember things. As if memories were just a matter of convenience, and you could throw them away if you didn't want them. Although why you wouldn't want such pleasant memories is beyond me. We woke up. It was sunny. I cooked breakfast. We listened to Krebenspell's Second. We made love. We went to dinner at Trisquette. I gave you these." His voice was obnoxiously calm. Pella's need for a sky-blue pill was through the roof, but she wasn't sure where her purse had gone. She looked for the bottle of wine, but it was gone too, hauled off by the waiter with the hairless hands. She'd probably drunk the whole thing herself. David always stopped at two glasses. She'd have to be crazy not to remember those earrings, and she was clearly not crazy. Opaquely not crazy. Not not not crazy. She vaguely remembered dinner in late December, an awful afternoon walled in by the platinum sun, the bizarre creakings of Deskin Krebenspell, whom David regarded as the quote "only living composer." No making love — no way. […]

But the earrings were something else. the earrings existed. They lay there on the table. They did look vaguely familiar — no doubt they'd seen them in some boutique in Hayes Valley, and Pella had oohed and ahhed, and David, having taken note of her oohing and ahhing — he'd never been singy with gifts — bought them before flying out here. And now was pretending that he'd given them to her before. She picked one up to put it back in its manila envelope. A nice touch, that: to hand them over in their brand-new box would make them seem brand-new. It was a classic David maneuver to try to win her back this way, by making her think she was crazy. He made her crazy, no one else. He did have good taste, though. The earring squirted from her hand and landed in her empty wineglass amid the pale grit. She should drink it, swallow it — now that would make her crazy. And it would make him crazy too.

She does in fact swallow the earring, and then goes to the bathroom and throws up to retrieve it. "Not NOT not crazy" seems about right.

Here's a passage later in the same novel, which underlines Harbach's interest in multiple-negation sequences:

Two weeks prior, on Saturday morning, Henry had been playing Tetris when Owen and Jason walked in, Owen calm and chipper as always, Jason sleepy-eyed and carrying a big paper cup of coffee. Henry closed the Tetris window, opened the website for his physics class. "Hi guys," he said. "What's up?"

"We're going shopping," said Owen.

"Oh, cool. Have fun."

"The we is inclusive. Please put on your shoes."

"Oh, ha, that's okay," Henry said. "I'm not much of a shopper."

"But you're not not a master of litotes," Jason said. Lie-toe-tease. Henry repeated it to himself, so that he could look it up later. "When we get back I'm burning those jeans."

"What's wrong with these jeans?" Henry looked down at his legs. It wasn't a rhetorical question: there was clearly something wrong with his jeans. He'd realized as much since arriving at Westish, just as he'd realized there was something wrong with his shoes, his hair, his backpack, and everything else. But he didn't know quite what it was. The way the Eskimos had a hundred words for snow, he had only one for jeans.

At this point, I'm going to venture to disagree slightly with Larry's discussion of the typical pitch contour of examples like these. On p. 118 of The Expression of Negation he has

Here's the audio for the "not not licking toads" passage, with a pitch track:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

And here's the audio and pitch track for Matthew Dowd's claim about Newt Gingrich (see here for the context):

There was not a single attack tonight that he did not not engage on.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

As you can see (and hear), in both cases the pitch contour on the second "not" is a rise from a low value, which Larry correctly transcribes as L*+H; but the "tail" of Homer's contour is mid-level, and Matthew Dowd's falls to low — neither case has the low rise that Larry notates as L H%. In my experience, the rise+fall is an essential characteristic of this pattern, but the terminal contour can be falling, level, or rising. (Perhaps if someone can zero in the right episode of Seventh Heaven, we'll find an example with a final rise…)


  1. Jon Hughes said,

    March 14, 2012 @ 11:12 pm

    This discussion reminded me of this line from Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey (1991)

    Dead Bill: [after Bill and Ted have each experienced their own personal Hell] That was non-non-non-non-NON-Heinous!

    Although in the case of Bill and Ted, the adding of additional "non"s seems to intensify heinous. Most excellent.

  2. Mr Fnortner said,

    March 15, 2012 @ 2:46 am

    I read a sense of panic and defiance in her statements about being (thought) crazy. Note the contrast between "clearly not crazy" and "opaquely not crazy" that seems to cover all the possibilities. And "opaquely not crazy" is not idiomatic–that is, no one uses the expression as a figure of speech. So she is frantically searching for a way to rule out being crazy, and opposes "clearly" with "opaquely". That said, I believe she repeats "not" for emphasis, not for negation, as an example of epizeuxis or palilogia.

  3. Hamish said,

    March 15, 2012 @ 4:04 am

    I read that as being an emphatic denial of the Homerian sly admission.

  4. GeorgeW said,

    March 15, 2012 @ 5:47 am

    I vote emphatic.

  5. Jamie said,

    March 15, 2012 @ 5:50 am

    Does it always require three or more nots to change from weak, 'licking toads', admission to emphasis?

    And was 'David fixed her with a clam, pitying expression' a transcription error or in the original?

    [(myl) Transcription error, of course.]

  6. Dan said,

    March 15, 2012 @ 6:54 am

    I read it differently.
    Each assertion in the sequence strengthens the ones before them.
    clearly not crazy (an absolute)
    opaquely not crazy (making the first assertion even stronger by completing the whole gamut of "not crazy" over the transparency spectrum)
    not "not not" crazy (no hedging about it)
    no making love (specifically, her memory is reliable)
    no way (her assertions are absolute. Full stop.)

    It seems much more likely to me that the character builds "not not not" by negating a known "thing" (the weak "not not crazy"), rather than extending a known linguistic construct into shaky territory. It's hard enough working with negatives, as evidenced by constructions like "unloose" and "unthaw" (and abuses such as with "nonplus"); my own interior voice doesn't manipulate truth tables that fluently.

    Moreover, "not NOT not crazy" is a hedged construct, inconsistent with the train of thought of intensifying absolutes.

  7. Steve F said,

    March 15, 2012 @ 7:23 am

    I think this exchange from The Big Bang Theory is another example of double negatives failing to cancel out and amounting to a weaker positive:
    Clearly Sheldon's "I would not object to us no longer characterising you as 'not my girlfriend'" is a weaker positive than Amy requires. Even though, as a 'quadruple negative' ('object' has a negative connotation to go with the three 'nots') the sentence should mean the same as 'I want you for my girlfriend', it obviously doesn't.

  8. a George said,

    March 15, 2012 @ 9:25 am

    I think – possibly like Mr. Fnorter – that you all think too much. Clearly, the bordering-to-hysteria repetition of "not" for emphasis is merely a sign of Pella cracking up. Should be filed under "pitch contour" and not just "semantics". And David was not ape-like in his gift-giving habits! (oops, just did it again and will be expelled for it – criticising orthography. But then see response to Jamie, above)

  9. Robert Coren said,

    March 15, 2012 @ 9:37 am

    I read the book a couple of months ago, and I don't remember what I thought of this construction at the time, but in context I can't read it as emphasis (I'd expect something like "not, not, NOT crazy"). The weakening triple-negation is of a piece with all of Pella's internal monologues.

    And while we (well, some of us) are picking nits, I can't be 100% sure (and the copy I read was from a library, and thus no longer at my disposal), but I'm fairly certain that the second quoted scene (with Henry, Owen, and Jason) is from earlier in the book than the restaurant scene, not later.

    And in case anyone was wondering, "Bella" is not a transcription error. It's what David invariably calls Pella, and although Harbach never calls narrative attention to it, it's clearly, opaquely, one of the many things he does that drives her not not crazy.

  10. Bobbie said,

    March 15, 2012 @ 2:52 pm

    Oh no! Not the dreaded words for snow!
    "The way the Eskimos had a hundred words for snow, he had only one for jeans."

  11. Pharmamom said,

    March 15, 2012 @ 3:32 pm

    Hmm. I am going to have to buy the book. I read not not not as an Ophelia protesting too much allusion.

  12. Ken MacDougall said,

    March 15, 2012 @ 5:24 pm

    I once told staff at a meeting 'The students aren't not culpable'. I think I was trying to be diplomatic.

  13. Just another Peter said,

    March 15, 2012 @ 7:11 pm

    Another transcription error: "We work up" should be "We woke up".

  14. Peter said,

    March 15, 2012 @ 11:46 pm

    How does the contradictory (oxymoronic?) usage of "clear" and "opaque" factor into this triple negation? Does the clearly/opaquely help to cancel the nots out?

  15. Michael Cargal said,

    March 16, 2012 @ 10:32 am

    My favorite triple negation is "I ain't never did no wrong," in the song "One night with you," sung by Elvis Presley, written by Dave Bartholomew and Pearl King.

  16. Adam Roberts said,

    March 17, 2012 @ 5:24 am

    But '…not NOT licking toads…' has a reasonably unambiguous meaning, something signalled by the fact that it makes us laugh. It means 'I am licking toads, but I know I'm not supposed to so I don't want to admit it straightforwardly to you.' Only more concisely. The laughter comes directly from the naif juxtaposition, and 'not not' captures that very neatly. I don't think any of the other examples in this post work the same way; mostly we either take them emphatically, or else we're invited to work through them logically (the exception is Steve F.'s Big Bang Theory example, where the joke is precisely that we're invited to work through the aggregated negations logically).

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