Clarification by misnegation

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There were several aspects of President Donald Trump's recent news conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki that sparked strong negative reactions, for example leading former CIA director John Brennan to call Trump's performance "nothing short of treasonous". One of the controversial parts of Trump's remarks was this answer to a question about whether he would denounce the Russians' role in the 2016 election, and warn Putin never to do it again:

All I can do is ask the question
My people came to me
Dan Coats came to me and
some others, they said they think it's Russia —
uh I have uh President Putin
uh he just said it's not Russia.
I will say this, I don't see any reason why it would be.
I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful
in his denial today […]

So in a 7/17/2018 meeting with congressional Republicans, the president laid out an unusual explanation for the fuss — it was that old devil misnegation, which caused him to seem to say the opposite of what he now says he meant:

Now I have to say I came back
and I said what is going on, what's the big deal?
So I got a transcript, I reviewed it, I actually went out
and reviewed a clip
of uh an answer that I gave
and I realized that there is a need for some clarifiation.
It should have been obvious, I thought it would be obvious,
but I would like to clarify just in case it wasn't.
In a key sentence in my remarks
I said the word "would" instead of "wouldn't".
The sentence should have been
"I don't see any reason why I wouldn't"
or "why it wouldn't be Russia", so
just to repeat it, I said the word "would" instead of "wouldn't".
And the sentence should have been
and I thought I would be maybe a little bit
unclear on the
transcript or unclear on the actual video —
the sentence should have been
"I don't see any reason why it wouldn't be Russia".
Sort of a double negative.

There were some other sections of the Helsinki press conference that were perhaps even more controversial, and this attempt at clarification by misnegation was rejected by some influential observers. So White House aides may at this moment be paging through old LLOG posts in search of other appropriate adjustment techniques.

And there are some initial indications that Clarification by Misnegation may have memetic potential, e.g.



  1. Neal Goldfarb said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 2:07 am

    Some thoughts on whether the original statement contains any linguistic clues that might either support or undermine Trump's claim that he misspoke. (I'm ignoring what we know about Trump's pathological dishonesty and his prior statements about the subject, and treating this purely as an exercise in forensic linguistics.)

    My first thought that maybe the prosody of "why it would be" would be helpful, but I tend to think not. It's not clear to me that the prosody would have been different if he had intend to say "wouldn't be."

    But from a discourse perspective, I think the evidence goes the other way.

    On the assumption that Trump didn't misspeak, the three key sentences seem consistent in the attitude that they convey as to whether Russia interfered in the election:

    uh he just said it's not Russia. [Attitude: Denial of interference]

    I will say this, I don't see any reason why it would be. [Attitude: Weak denial of interference]

    I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful
    in his denial [Attitude: Denial of interference.]

    But if he misspoke, the attitude behind the second sentence would be something like Acceptance of possibility of interference. And on that reading, it would be reasonable to expect there to be something either in what Trump said or in the way that he spoke that would signal the change in attitude—maybe a discourse marker like but, or some kind of contrastive prosody. But there's no explicit marker, and I don't hear anything in his delivery that would signal a contrast.

    Of course, Trump's normal speaking style is disjointed, so maybe the absence of any kind of a linguistic "tell" isn't out of the ordinary.

    If anyone wants to do a study of Trump's speech patterns, to try to find out whether they shed any light on the issue, I hope they'll share the results with us. As an incentive, we will pay twice our usual rate.


  2. AntC said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 2:17 am

    There's grown up somethig of a tradition of politicians (particularly in the U.S.) claiming that they "mis-spoke". For George W Bush it was a regular go-to explanation. Hillary Clinton used the tactic.

    I don't remember any such excuse from Barack Obama(?). So perhaps it's slipped out of the attention-span-of-a-fruitfly political discourse up to 2016.

    Is there any legitimate linguistic/cognitive phenomenon corresponding to "mis-speaking"? (As there is with mis-negation or slips of the tongue.)

    With Trump's Helsinki press conference, is there any sort of an acoustic hint that he said or intended "wouldn't"? Did the "n't" get swallowed or elided at the end of the word? Does the intonation/cadence of the utterance suggest so?

    That passage in Helsinki has been replayed by every commentator and satirist. It's remarkable amongst Trump's utterances for the number of connected words spoken without repetition, deviation or interruption.

  3. David Marjanović said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 4:43 am

    There's grown up somethig of a tradition of politicians (particularly in the U.S.) claiming that they "mis-spoke".

    That may indeed be peculiar to the US; elsewhere it's "the media misquoted me" and/or "the media quoted me out of context".

  4. GeorgeW said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 5:49 am

    Misspoke? Nah. The original "would" is consistent with the context. As an example, he says that Dan Coats only "thinks" the Russians meddled while Putin offers an "extremely strong and powerful" denial.

  5. TIC said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 6:13 am

    Leaving aside the question (as if there really is any question) of which version expresses his true belief, it's of course duplicitous to refer to an outright *correction* as merely "some clarification"…

  6. Breffni said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 6:46 am

    This is one of the most pathetic self-defences in recent history: I agree with Neal and GeorgeW that the general drift of his remarks obviously favours the meaning of the words as actually spoken at the press conference.

    But on the other hand Trump got lucky. He or his aides will have breathed a sigh of relief, on reading the transcript, to find that substituting "wouldn't" for "would" doesn't render his reply incoherent beyond all argument. That tiny seed of plausibility is all Trump ever needs to plant in the minds of his supporters; they'll water and nurture it themselves. If someone had the patience, time and stomach for it, it would be interesting to examine his supporters' online reactions to see what gymnastics were required to justify his words both pre- and post-"clarification", within 24 hours of each other.

  7. Lane said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 7:34 am

    "Mis-spoke" is certainly not unique to the US. I wrote about it here .

  8. ===Dan said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 7:55 am

    My immediate reaction was that it's uncommon to see the "poor monkey brain" excuse come into play when the speaker _didn't_ use a double negative.

  9. Mark P said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 8:09 am

    @TIC — I'm not sure it's possible to know what Donald Trump actually believes. I don't think the concept of truth or falseness enters into his thinking. The difference, or even that there is a difference, seems to be a foreign concept.

  10. Jonathan said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 9:57 am

    That explanation was incredible.

  11. What I’m reading 18 Jul 2018 | Morgan's Log said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 11:02 am

    […] Clarification by misnegation – I wouldn’t want to not overlook this. – (negation trump politics linguistics rhetoric ) […]

  12. Ben Zimmer said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 11:21 am

    While I agree that the next-day "clarification" was ludicrous, it's not so crazy that someone might accidentally turn a double negative into a single one. Among our many posts on misnegation are a number that cover somewhat related examples of undernegation. (See e.g. my 2005 post, "Negation, over- and under-," which discusses, among other things, how could care less might have arisen from couldn't care less, and how still unpacked gets used to mean still ununpacked.) It just seems incredibly unlikely, given the context, that this is such a case of accidental undernegation.

    ETA: See Lane Greene's piece in The Economist (which relies heavily on LL misnegation posts).

  13. Stephen Hart said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 2:03 pm

    I may be missing something here.

    Slightly restated, Trump said, originally:
    US Intelligence says it is Russia. Putin says it isn't Russia.
    I don't see any reason why it would be Russia.
    (What would Russia have to gain?)

    The new statement seems to be:

    US Intelligence says it is Russia. Putin says it isn't Russia.
    I don't see any reason why it wouldn't be Russia.
    (Everybody does it.)

  14. Marty said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 4:20 pm

    @TIC — While his excuse is obviously incredible, I actually have no idea as to which version matches Trump's true beliefs. After all, Trump is a well know lying liar who lies. One of those statements was an intentional lie, but I don't know which one. Is he stupid enough to not see why Russia would want him to be elected, or is he complisant enough to lie about that. I honestly don't know (but, frankly, suspect the latter).

  15. Stephen Hart said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 5:03 pm

    Marty said,
    @TIC — While his excuse is obviously incredible, I actually have no idea as to which version matches Trump's true beliefs.

    Both. His original statement fits well with his oft-reported abhorrence of admitting that the Russians helped him get elected.
    His second corrections fits well with his oft-stated stance–including at Helsinki–that the US is equally guilty of (fill in the wrongdoing in question).

  16. Gabriel Holbrow said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 6:36 pm

    The last time I remember a president engaging in this level of linguistic analysis of his own words was when President Clinton posited that whether he told the truth in saying there is no relationship between him and Monica Lewinsky "depends on what the meaning of 'is' is." And he was literally impeached for it. Granted, President Clinton's questionable statement was under oath, while President Trump's was not. And to understate, there are other non-linguistic differences between these two cases.

  17. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 9:59 pm

    David Marjanović: "The media misrepresented me" is hard to use when the whole thing is recorded (though Trump has reportedly tried questioning the authenticity of another recording).

  18. Matthew McIrvin said,

    July 19, 2018 @ 8:03 am

    All I can do is ask the question
    My people came to me

    Speaking words of wisdom, "Let'nt it be."

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