Lacking semantic support from unexpected quarters

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Reader PN wrote to comment on the first sentence of  a story by Andres Oppenheimer in the Miami Herald, "US unlikely to condemn Argentina’s ‘outlaw behavior’ — yet", Miami Herald 5/16/2012:

A U.S. congressional proposal aimed at expelling Argentina’s populist-leftist government from the G-20 group of the world’s leading economies faces an uncertain future, not the least because it lacks significant support from unexpected quarters — conservative Cuban-American Republican lawmakers.

PN's comment:

From the rest of the article — and typical attitudes of Cuban-American Republicans to leftist Latin American governments — it seems clear that they are trying to say that the *lack* of support was unexpected. But what a strange way to put it.

A Google Books search for "support from unexpected quarters" turns up plenty of examples — but all are cases of getting, receiving, finding such support, not lacking it:

From information which I have received, I shall get considerable support from unexpected quarters.
Ukrainian soviets are receiving support from unexpected quarters.
A main claim of the movement, which is now finding new support from unexpected quarters, is the perniciousness of neoliberal policies.
Such sombre observations have received support from unexpected quarters.
The dock owners and the ship owners refused to negotiate, and the strike might have collapsed had it not been for support from unexpected quarters.
[T]hese attempts by Feuerbach, Freud and Sierksma to discuss religion at the cultural level as well, which in this interpretation are to be rejected, have recently received support from unexpected quarters.
Phillips's argument that the plantation economy was unhealthy for both individual planters and the southern economy as a whole received support from unexpected quarters in the 1960s.
They can expect
some support from unexpected quarters for the twin slogan— education and atomic power.

There are just two examples of "support from expected quarters", both also involving getting or receiving such support:

The debate continued — Shaw repeating verbatim some of what he had written in the preface to The Doctor's Dilemma — with each party to the dispute receiving support from expected quarters …
The BJP had hoped to reach the magic number of 269 by getting support from 'expected quarters'.

So there's a sort of idiom or collocation, "support from unexpected quarters", which is something that one can get, receive, or find. Curiously, one can also expect support from unexpected quarters. And can also, of course, get, receive, find, expect, or hope for support from expected quarters.  And finally, support, expected or otherwise, can fail to materialize.

We can tell that this is a sort of idiom because this sense of quarter(s) has a rather limited distribution — we don't see things like "*The usual quarters supported this measure", or "*A certain quarter argues that all such regulation should be eliminated."

Anyhow, you could certainly negate a phrase like "receive significant support from unexpected quarters" to get something like "It's not the case that the bill received significant support from unexpected quarters", or "The bill did not receive significant support from unexpected quarters". And you could merge "not receive" into lack: "The bill lacked significant support from unexpected quarters".

What's a bit odd about the Miami Herald's lede, as PN points out, is that the support of conservative Cuban-Americans for moves against  aleftist government in Argentina is expected support from expected quarters. What's unexpected is that this expected support has failed to materialize.

This implies a semantic structure that's informally

[[lacks support] [from unexpected quarters]]

rather than the expected

[lacks [support [from unexpected quarters]]]

If we merge the "lack of support" into a single noun, e.g. opposition, then  we wouldn't give the construction a second thought, as in these Google Books examples:

The Gilbert bill met with swift opposition from unexpected quarters.
It is a well-known fact that the CLS critique of rights (and concomitant focus on needs) met with opposition from unexpected quarters, including critical gender and critical race theorists, …

So it's plausible that the analogous use of "[lacks support] from unexpected quarters" is grammatical — but just hard to process, due to the quasi-idiomatic character of "support from unexpected quarters".

While this is not an example of what we've come to call misnegation, the processing difficulty is certainly increased by the presence of multiple lexical negations along with the scalar predication implicit in unexpected and not the least because.


  1. Carl Offner said,

    May 20, 2012 @ 8:46 pm

    It's funny. I had no difficulty at all understanding the meaning when I first read it. Only after starting to read the analysis in the post did I start to find it difficult to read. I then started to think that replacing "unexpected" by "expected" would be just as good, or really probably better. (And I now see that the post also alluded to this.) And if that's the case, what's really going on here?

  2. Carl Offner said,

    May 20, 2012 @ 8:49 pm

    Reading it again, maybe the post *does* explain what's going on. I'll go back to sleep. Still it's pretty strange, I think.

  3. phspaelti said,

    May 20, 2012 @ 8:49 pm

    A non-existant surprise is no surprise at all!

  4. Rod Johnson said,

    May 20, 2012 @ 8:52 pm

    Yeah, were they *expecting* support from unexpected quarters?

  5. phspaelti said,

    May 20, 2012 @ 9:06 pm

    Anyhow, I agree with Carl (I think). This sentence strikes me as what GKP calls a "Russia sentence", surprisingly easy to interpret as intended even though literally parsed it doesn't mean that at all. On the other hand the actual meaning requires a very contrived situation. Something like this:

    "We put forward our proposal, and we got support from all the usual parties. But in order to pass it we needed something more. In the end the lack of support from unexpected places doomed our proposal."

    Obviously this type of interpretation is only possible if we don't know who the unexpected party is ?!

  6. dw said,

    May 20, 2012 @ 10:04 pm

    I cannot parse the sentence to give it its intended meaning. In my grammar the verb "lack" takes a direct object. It does not normally take a preposition — and it certainly does not take "from" as a preposition.

    This rules out

    [[lacks support] [from unexpected quarters]]

    as a possible parsing of the sentence, leaving only

    [lacks [support [from unexpected quarters]]]

    which is the reverse of the intended meaning.

  7. Ruben Polo-Sherk said,

    May 20, 2012 @ 10:15 pm

    I don't think this 'quarters' can be thought of semantically as a direct stand-in for 'a particular group of people'. It's much more similar to 'direction'–where we see the same collocation; e.g. 'I got help from an unexpected direction.' (Where this 'direction' is similar to that of 'Which direction is your house?', but not the same. It's like a metahporic extension.).

    My first reaction when reading the quote was that the error came from, rather than a misnegation, a mistake in organization. Perhaps they meant to say that the *lack* was unexpected, rather than which 'quarters' were unexpected.

  8. Ruben Polo-Sherk said,

    May 20, 2012 @ 10:30 pm

    Sorry to double-post, but I realize my second paragraph makes it seem that I can't read. So, in other words, I agree.

    If you make the syntax a little funny, though, it makes sense: "…it lacks from unexpected quarters significant support."

  9. Jeff Carney said,

    May 20, 2012 @ 11:42 pm

    You may not call it misnegation, but it supports what I've said all along, that the human mind is capable of processing all kinds of negation, logical or not, and still coming up with the writer's intention the first time around. It's wonderful, really.

  10. Pflaumbaum said,

    May 21, 2012 @ 5:39 am

    Is it support from unexpected quarters that's the idiom, or just from unexpected quarters?

    Help from unexpected quarters seems to be about three times as common on Google than support…

  11. MattF said,

    May 21, 2012 @ 6:43 am

    It's a mismisnegation.

  12. Ross Presser said,

    May 21, 2012 @ 8:23 am

    The editor should have taken care of this, and rephrased the end of the sentence to something like "lacks significant support where it would be expected — Cuban-American lawmakers."

  13. Andy Averill said,

    May 21, 2012 @ 8:42 am

    I found two examples of "lack of support from unexpected quarters" on regular google, but I wasn't able to post for some reason. Anybody who's interested can find them there.

  14. Dan T. said,

    May 21, 2012 @ 12:07 pm

    When they emptied the coin tray of a pinball machine, back in the '70s when those things were more common, they would find a bunch of expected quarters.

  15. Ezra said,

    May 21, 2012 @ 12:38 pm

    The biggest semantic slip here went unnoticed: to regard the classification of the current Argentinian government as "leftist" a certain fact. As if all Latin American nationalists had to be leftist by default. Only in America LoL. Did anyone care to check where most of the Argentinian left was in the last elections? Or the complex history if Peronist populism? It's oh-so-easy to oversimplify the issues by labeling the government as "leftist" and "populist" and "anti-American" to justify action against them.

    [(myl) I don't know much about Argentine politics,, but identifying the current government as "leftist" is not only a U.S. thing. Thus in France we have headlines like "Argentina : Cristina Kirchner vire à gauche", and comments at Le Figaro like

    Il est normal que Mme Kirchner félicite M. Hollande pour sa victoire, c'est une question de civilité entre pays démocratiques, comme il est normal qu'une dirigeante de gauche comme Cristina Kirchner se réjouisse de la victoire d'un socialiste comme François Hollande. En tout cas la victoire du socialisme français a tres bien été reçu en Amérique du Sud, beaucoup mieux qu'en Europe.

    And BBC News referred to Nestor Kirchner as "a leftist from the party once affiliated to Peron".

    And Mario Vargas Llosa sees Peronism as including the whole political spectrum:

    Ahora tenemos un peronismo que es todo: es la extrema derecha, es el centro, es el centro izquierda, es la extrema izquierda, es la democracia y es el terrorismo, es la demagogia y es la insensatez… Todo es el peronismo …

    So it's neither especially American nor especially implausible to see a campaign of nationalization as a manifestation of the leftist elements of Peronism.]

  16. Alacritas said,

    May 21, 2012 @ 12:40 pm

    Yes, to me it also seems like a misnegation. Firstly because, as Carl Offner pointed out, it makes much more sense if you replace "unexpected" with "expected"; and secondly because I, like Carl, also understood the sentence and was left wondering what this post would be about. This is usually the case for me when I read examples of misnegation in a post here: I'm always left wondering (unless the title of the post gave away that it would be about misnegation — or sometimes even then!) just where the problem is in the sentence. Of course this second 'reason' isn't exactly foolproof, for I could certainly miss some other semantic nuances in a sentence that might have nothing to do with misnegation; but still…

  17. J Lee said,

    May 21, 2012 @ 1:23 pm

    i find the original preferable to ross presser's version.. there's no reason to assume that 'quarters' referred to a particular subset from which support was expected rather than a generic use with 'unexpected'.

  18. KevinM said,

    May 21, 2012 @ 3:04 pm

    One other thing. To my ears, "not least because," as opposed to "not the least because," would be idiomatic. The latter sounds like a miscue for "not in the least because," which is probably the opposite of the intended sense.

  19. EndlessWaves said,

    May 21, 2012 @ 6:04 pm

    I parsed it first time and was felt that it was a particularly nice turn of phrase. It's fascinating that people can have such different reactions.

    I think this may be a case of a lack of punctuation rather than a poor choice of word, is the following any easier to parse for those having trouble?

    "The bill faces an uncertain future, not the least because it lacks significant support – from unexpected quarters."

  20. Ed Latham said,

    May 22, 2012 @ 3:06 am

    I'm with those who don't understand it – unable to process the exact meaning of 'lacks' in relation to 'unexpected quarters', I just read right past it and moved on to the object. As an editor, I'd be inclined to attach the lack of expectation more closely to the verb by making it adverbial, abandon the 'quarters' altogether and repunctuate slightly. Thus:

    'A U.S. congressional proposal aimed at expelling Argentina’s populist-leftist government from the G-20 group of the world’s leading economies faces an uncertain future – not least because, unexpectedly, it lacks significant support from conservative Cuban-American Republican lawmakers.'

  21. Henry Clay said,

    May 22, 2012 @ 9:01 am

    It strikes me that "unexpected" is a funny kind of adjective here. It refers not to some property of the quarters, but rather to subjective feelings about the quarters. A quarter can be inherently blue, short or beautiful, but it can't be inherently unexpected. Grammatically, we know that the word doesn't apply to only the noun itself, so we have no problem lifting it out of its position and applying it to the phrase as a whole.

    We do this with adverbs all the time. "The book was unexpectedly blue" doesn't leave us wondering exactly what kind of blue that was. We parse it as "The book was blue and that was unexpected", just as we parse the above as "it lacked support from certain quarters, and that was unexpected".

  22. John Swindle said,

    May 23, 2012 @ 2:58 am

    Some possible responses to a legislative proposal are support, lack of support, indifference, enthusiasm, criticism, resistance, opposition. If these are "from unexpected quarters," a couple of them look odd, but the rest don't. It's not surprising that someone has tried "lacks significant support from unexpected quarters," even though it doesn't actually make much sense.

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