"I could no longer deny that we were not …"

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Many times over the years we've noted cases where piled-up modals and negations  leave writers (and readers) uncertain about whether a sentence might not turn out to mean the opposite of what it was meant to. Here's another example, contributed by GD — John Albrecht, "One year on", 12/31/2017:

At about this time one year ago “the penny dropped” for me as an auctioneer and I could no longer deny that auctioneers who dealt in ivory were not significantly contributing to maintaining value in this material and consequently, the ongoing slaughter of endangered species.

In this case, the tally seems clearly to come out wrong — to convince yourself, try replacing "deny" with "maintain the view", or replacing "were not significantly contributing" with "were significantly contributing".

As previously discussed. there seem to be four (not mutually exclusive) possible explanations for such cases:

  1. Our poor monkey brains just can't deal with complex combinations of certain logical operators;
  2. The connection between English and modal logic may involve some unexpected ambiguities;
  3. Negative concord is alive and well in English (or in UG);
  4. Odd things become idioms or at least verbal habits ("could care less"; "fail to miss"; "still unpacked").

Today's example seems to me to involve both (1) and (3).

But conceptual history probably plays a role as well. The author used to be believe that "auctioneers who dealt in ivory were not significantly contributing to […] the ongoing slaughter of endangered species"; and then he changed his mind, no longer able to maintain that view,  thereby denying his previous belief. Putting those semantic jigsaw puzzles together can easily go wrong.





  1. ktschwarz said,

    July 9, 2018 @ 11:18 am

    I think (2) is in play here, since "no longer" is a scalar threshold. "After enough evidence accumulated to change my mind, I could no longer deny…"

    Also, this is an emotionally loaded sentence, like a lot of the other overnegations in the archives. Once our monkey brains detect that the writer feels bad about ivory, they decide it's not worth keeping count of the negatives.

    PS: don't forget to add this to the compilation post.

  2. DWalker07 said,

    July 11, 2018 @ 12:27 pm

    "…bags as yet unpacked…" from just this month in the New York Times, no less.


  3. Michael said,

    July 11, 2018 @ 3:14 pm

    "Bags as yet unpacked" does not appear to be an error. As yet, the bags are not packed for tomorrow's disembarkation, therefore they are as yet unpacked.

  4. DWalker07 said,

    July 12, 2018 @ 3:30 pm

    Ah, you may be right about that instance of "bags as yet unpacked". The phrase is easy to misconstrue. II would say "bags not yet packed for debarkation" or whatever.

  5. EvelynU said,

    July 17, 2018 @ 6:48 pm

    Possibly the highest profile case of "double negative" confusion by the president of the United States today. Except that he was claiming double negative confusion when, in his original statement there WAS no double negative. His confusion, supposedly, was that he neglected to double-negate the sentence.
    "No reason that it WOULD be Russia!"
    was supposed to be "No reason it WOULDN'T be Russia."
    And if you buy that, there;s a bridge on Moscow that I hear is for sale. People tell me it's for sale.

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