"Misunderstand that …", "pessimistic that …"

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In late June Lila Gleitman noticed a case of "A is pessimistic that S" meaning that A considers it likely that S will happen/turn out to be the case, and A considers S to be an unwanted outcome. Her example was "I am more pessimistic than I was two weeks ago about the trade war spinning out of control."

We agreed that we would both find it impossible to say "I’m pessimistic that the trade war will spin out of control", but differed on "pessimistic about": in my dialect, but not Lila’s, "A is pessimistic about a Republican victory in the fall" is OK, meaning that A fears that the outcome will be the one she doesn’t want — that there will be or that there won’t be, depending on her point of view.

Lila, by the way, said she could use “pessimistic that” in the case of losing hope in a good outcome: “I am more  pessimistic than I was two weeks ago that the prices of stocks will rise.” But I don't think I could use "pessimistic that" there either. (So the original speaker and Lila and I seem to have three different patterns of judgments about "pessimistic that".)

And then on June 26 I found the following in an interview with the Texas congressional candidate MJ Hegar: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2018/06/22/war-hero-and-democrat-m-j-hegar-draws-attention-house-ad-texas-john-carter/725512002/

At 1:52 in the video she says, criticizing her prospective Republican opponent who credited modern technology for our military superiority, "However, he misunderstands that it's actually the people that secure our nation."

Both Lila and I find that impossible, but Hegar said it perfectly fluently and naturally, so it seems to be natural for her, with ‘misunderstand’ meaning ‘not understand’.

I started a brief conversation around the Language Log water cooler, and got some helpful responses, though no one knew of any actual studies on such uses of “pessimistic that” or “misunderstand that”. (So it's an open topic on semantics/pragmatics/semi-negative verbs.)

From Larry Horn:

I haven’t seen anything on this and can’t get “pessimistic” in this sense.  That is,

“I’m {not optimistic/#pessimistic} that Ruth Bader Ginsburg will ever again be able to vote with the majority.

There are the well-established semantic/pragmatic markedness differences between “optimistic” and “pessimistic”, e.g.

"I’m not optimistic about the midterm elections.”    [implicates a contrary reading that approaches “I’m pessimistic about them”]
"I’m not pessimistic about the midterm elections.” [simple contradictory negation, no implicature that approaches “I’m optimistic about them”]

This is of course the general pattern reflected in the asymmetry of “They’re not happy” vs. “They’re not unhappy/They’re not sad”

But I hadn’t noticed the difference in the syntactic distribution you guys mention.  Reminds me of other syntactic constraints on negative adjectives, such as the failure of “uncertain” to take that-complements or undergo raising:

He’s {certain/not certain/#uncertain} to be impeached.
I’m {certain/not certain/#uncertain} that the country is becoming an autocracy.

But OK:

I’m uncertain whether the country is becoming an autocracy, a theocracy, or both.

Neal Goldfarb searched COCA and found that there are far fewer examples of “misunderstand that” than of “not understand that”. One interesting detail in the examples he collected was that it seems, from context, that while most instances of “misunderstood that” meant “did not understand that”, one or two seemed to mean “understood, wrongly, that”, as in this one:

“It is sometimes misunderstood that Schneemann's interest in painting was psychological, when it was about observation,” (from ArtJournal, 2015)

Mark Liberman did a search of two databases with “misunderstand that the” (using "that the" to ensure that the that would be complementizer that.)

Summary of his findings:

                                                          GloWbE        NOW

[understand] that the                        10866         29031

[misunderstand] that the                      17                23

optimistic that the                                563           5409

pessimistic that the                               11                46

So these surprising (to us) uses of “pessimistic that S” and “misunderstand that S” are not unheard of, but at this point not very widespread. We don’t know whether they are gaining or declining.


  1. dainichi said,

    July 30, 2018 @ 9:52 pm

    Searching Google books, I see multiple cases of "misunderstand that" meaning not "fail to understand that", but "mistakenly understand something to mean that", e.g.

    > People will misunderstand that the Buddha's teachings are well tuned to the cult's doctrine, and even consider them one and the same

    So it seems it can go both ways, not dissimilar to the way "pessimistic that" can (to some).

  2. Philip Anderson said,

    July 31, 2018 @ 7:50 am

    I (British) have no problem with either “pessimistic about” or “pessimistic that”.

    But “misunderstand that” leaves me uncertain whether the following clause is what the person doesn’t understand or what they mistakenly believe. I would prefer “he misunderstands; X is (not) the case”.

  3. Cervantes said,

    July 31, 2018 @ 8:13 am

    I'd try pessimism, but it probably wouldn't work.

  4. Bessel Dekker said,

    July 31, 2018 @ 12:15 pm

    Would "optimistic that" sound as unidiomatic as "pessimistic that"? Ngram suggests it would not. Why is this? Is the former more assertive? Is the latter used analogously to the former?

  5. Haamu said,

    July 31, 2018 @ 2:01 pm

    In my idiolect, misunderstand means "form an understanding that is incorrect" and never means "fail to form an understanding." This aligns with the strong sense (supported by OED) that mis- implies error or impropriety of some sort, not negation. So it's interesting that misunderstand that might acquire the purely negative sense.

    There are very few words I can think of where mis- means pure negation. The most obvious one is mistrust. Again consulting OED, I see that mistrust that is a (regional) expression. Not a coincidence?

  6. Barbara Partee said,

    July 31, 2018 @ 9:14 pm

    @Bessel Dekker — see Larry Horn's remarks and Mark Liberman's numbers in the post — "Optimistic that S" is fine for many people, maybe for just about everyone. And so is "Not optimistic that S". Larry notes analogies — "certain that x" is fine, also "not certain that x", but "uncertain that x" is not. That doesn't explain why, of course, but in Larry larger body of work you can see some ideas about it.
    Speaking entirely informally and intuitively, "optimistic" doesn't set up the tension that "pessimistic" does in the context of taking a that-clause. Things that take a that-clause are most often related to 'saying that' or 'believing that' or some other attitude that often has an element of belief as part of it. In "optimistic that S", you are both believing that S (will happen) and hoping that S, both of those positive attitudes. In "pessimistic that S", it seems that you believe that S will happen but hope that S will NOT happen; on some level that may seem to be a conflict. But that is in no way an explanatory statement — just a hunch about where I would start looking for an explanation.

  7. JPL said,

    July 31, 2018 @ 9:25 pm

    Speaking of Larry Horn, the following sentence seems OK to me, at least at the moment:

    "I'm pessimistic that anything good will come out of it."

    I would not use "pessimistic that" as roughly equivalent to "I'm apprehensive/fearful/doubtful that …." as in paragraphs 1-3 above. "It would be pessimistic (of you) to think that the trade war will spin out of control" also seems OK. "I'm pessimistic about + [nominal referring to the event without specifying the undesirable result]" would seem to be the usual case. "I'm pessimistic that the event (e.g., the election) will happen at all." Is that OK?

  8. Barbara Partee said,

    July 31, 2018 @ 9:32 pm

    I'm losing my own intuitions about "pessimistic that". Initially I know I would have said "no", I can't say any of those. But as often happens, repeating something "ungrammatical" often leads to it starting to sound perfectly fine, and that's starting to happen to me with "pessimistic that". (I've always been fine with "pessimistic about".)

  9. Trogluddite said,

    August 1, 2018 @ 8:49 am

    JPL: "I'm pessimistic about + [nominal referring to the event without specifying the undesirable result]"
    This example from JPL seems to get to the nub of my own usage of 'pessimistic'. I would happily say "pessimistic about [event, result unspecified]", meaning that I consider that the event will have a negative outcome, but "pessimistic that [result]" is uncomfortable due to the ambiguity about whether [result] is intended as desirable or undesirable. In contrast, I'm comfortable with "optimistic that [result]" because I would always read [result] as desirable.

    In the initial example, the phrase "trade war spinning out of control" is interesting because it can be split easily into [event] ("trade war") and [result] ("spinning out of control") parts; i.e. "I am pessimistic about the trade war [because of my fear of it] spinning out of control." As the cliched metaphor "spinning out of control" almost always indicates an undesirable result, combining the [event] and [result] into a single [result of the event] phrase reduces the word count without making the speaker's feelings about [result] ambiguous. I wonder if relatively unambiguous examples such as this might be a step in the process of normalising more ambiguous usages of the "pessimistic that [result]" forms (assuming that any change in usage can be shown.)

  10. Michael said,

    August 1, 2018 @ 12:59 pm

    To me, "I’m pessimistic that the trade war will spin out of control" sounds like a mis-negation (either they mean that they are optimistic that the trade war will NOT spin out of control, or, more likely, they are pessimistic that the trade war will remain under control). The term "optimistic/pessimistic that" sounds perfectly fine to me, certainly for speech, and I'd probably not think twice about it in writing.
    "Misunderstand that" is a very different case. It sounds weird no matter what I put after it. But, "understand that" sounds fine. I suspect this is because the meaning of "He understands that I mean business," has a clear meaning, but "He misunderstands that I mean business" gets us into a strange area of unclear negation. I guess one could understand it to mean "He thinks I don't really mean business," but I can't imagine saying it that way.

  11. Barbara Partee said,

    August 1, 2018 @ 5:52 pm

    What Trogluddite says makes a lot of sense to me.

  12. JPL said,

    August 4, 2018 @ 4:42 am

    I'm not sure whether or not I normally use the construction "pessimistic that …", but after this I probably will, perhaps regrettably. But I think my intuitive sense of these matters is more like (but not totally inline with) Lila's than Barbara's. In the OP, (simplifying a bit) the sentence "I am pessimistic about the trade war spinning out of control" I can imagine being said by lover of chaos Steve B., but not a normal person. If Steve B. can say this, he could probably also say, "I'm pessimistic that the trade war will spin out of control". Likewise, I think "I'm pessimistic about a Republican victory in the fall" would be more possible coming from Mitch McC. than from a liberal Democrat. And if Lila has money in the stock market, I would find it understandable for her to say, "I'm pessimistic that the prices of stocks will rise".

    Some examples:
    1) Steve B.: I'm pessimistic that the trade war will spin out of control (at all).
    (Regarding the result) Expectation (epistemic): The trade war will not spin out of control
    Desirability (value): That's not good!
    2) Donald T., an ego untethered to reality: I'm optimistic that the trade war will spin out of control (*at all).
    Expectation: The trade war will spin out of control.
    Desirability: That's good!

    3) I doubt that the trade war will spin out of control (at all).
    Expectation: The trade war will not spin out of control.
    Desirability: Neutral
    4) I'm fearful that the trade war will spin out of control (*at all).
    Expectation: Neutral
    Desirability: That's not good! (i.e., the trade war spinning out of control)
    5) I'm pessimistic that we'll find any money there/ that there will be anything in there.
    Expectation: There will be no money there.
    Desirability: It would be good to find some money there!

    (I don't know whether or not these sentences with "pessimistic that …" are grammatical, but if they are to be grammatical I want to say they should line up like this.)

  13. JPL said,

    August 4, 2018 @ 5:24 am

    Perhaps my comment above needs some comment. It looks like the central principles of the meanings of 'pessimistic' and 'optimistic' as lexemes concern the results (end-states, consequents, etc.) of future events wrt their epistemic status (expected result) and value (desired result). They differ in that with 'optimistic' the expected result is in line with the desired result. (The expression of the expected result would be referentially identical with the expression of the desired result.); with 'pessimistic' the expected result is contrary to the desired result: if the desired result is a, the expected result is not-a. So wrt negation, 'pessimistic' patterns more like 'doubt' than like 'fear', but unlike 'doubt' and 'fear', with 'pessimistic' both of these aspects (expectation and desirability) are relevant.

    As I said above, the typical case for 'pessimistic' is probably "I'm pessimistic about + [nominal referring to the event in question without specifying the result]. E.g., "I'm pessimistic about the upcoming election". But the specification of the result may be expressed with a that-clause complement or with "about + [nominal specifying the result]". (E.g., "I'm pessimistic about the election" vs. "I'm pessimistic about the possibility of a Democratic victory in the election") If the specified result (as opposed to the neutral nominal) is explicitly expressed, it, apparently, I would say, must be done by expressing the desired result, but at the same time negating the idea of its occurrence via the main verb ("pessimistic"), which includes an apparent negative element.

    So what makes a sentence such as "A is pessimistic about a Republican victory in the fall" (where A is presumably favouring the Democrats) seem odd and confusing to me is that it expresses the feared result, with no negation effect from the main verb ("pessimistic"). In contrast, (where the speaker is a Democrat) "I'm pessimistic that the Democrats will be able to win in November, even in this environment" expresses the desired result, but at the same time negates the idea via "pessimistic". I don't know whether these judgments are shared by the rest of the speech community, but I want to say if they are to be regarded as grammatical, this is the way the case ought to be.

  14. Barbara Partee said,

    August 6, 2018 @ 8:23 pm

    Thanks, @JPL. Those are really nice insights. And I like your idea of using negative polarity items to help tease out the scopes of implicit negations in these constructions.

  15. Bessel Dekker said,

    August 7, 2018 @ 6:22 pm

    Barbara, thank you. Apologies for my sloppy reading.

  16. Barbara Partee said,

    August 7, 2018 @ 9:11 pm

    @Bessel Dekker – more than welcome. I’ve learned a lot from this thread.

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