Their inability not to comprehend that they are incapable

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Jonathan Bouquet, "May I have a word… about toolkits, real and metaphorical", The Observer 10/14/2018 [emphasis added]:

No one, least of all my family and close friends, would deny that I am somewhat hidebound, stuck up to my nethers in mud. I mean, don’t get me started on the subject of mobile phones and the inability of so many of their owners not to comprehend that they are incapable of walking and using these devices at the same time.

Thus, when I see the word toolkit, it conjures up images of the contents of a red cantilevered box, containing hammers, various screwdrivers, bradawl, spanners (again various), sundry nails, screws and broken electric saw blades (no, I don’t know why either), and assorted oddly shaped pieces of plastic that probably came from a long-discarded Black & Decker Workmate.

Alas, no longer. A recent report, on parents who won’t let their sons wear a skirt to school possibly being referred to social services, talked of “Brighton and Hove city council’s ‘trans inclusion schools toolkit’”.

Now, without wishing to get involved in the tangled issue of gender identity, I would just like to stick my crusty old arm over the parapet and stand up for toolkit’s proper meaning. Brighton and Hove council could just as easily have used the word advice and it would have had exactly the same meaning.

Or, to put it another way, ain't no toolkit without no hammers.

So we have another example of the inability of so many writers not to comprehend that negative concord hasn't been part of standard English grammar since the 16th century or thereabouts. See e.g. Terttu Nevalainen, "Negative Concord as an English 'Vernacular Universal'", Journal of English Linguistics 2006.

Unless Jespersen's cycle is cycling again in English, things are this are just part of the long tail of historical change. Or maybe they're just a symptom of the inability of our poor monkey brains to fail to compute the overall tally of negative and positive contributions to sentence meaning.

Then there's the question of toolkits.

The OED tells us that a fashion for computational toolkits began in the 1980s:

1982 Computerworld 8 Mar. 62/4 Toolkit/34 was designed to speed the retrieval of selected information for the programmer and to simplify those functions critical to program testing.
1986 Acta Crystallogr. A. 42 110 (heading) A toolkit for computational molecular biology. II. On the optimal superposition of two sets of coordinates.
1988 Byte Oct. 98/2 Zortech's Comm Toolkit package is an eye-opening collection of programs geared to the programmer involved with serial-port communications and anxious to get on with it.
1997 Electronic Engin. Times 30 June 154/1 (advt.) Lead CAD projects in support of toolkit development for these products.

And searching Medline for "toolkit" turns up 1,307 results like these:

Drug Dosing Toolkit
Opioid Overdose Prevention Toolkit
Health Literacy Universal Precautions Toolkit
Norovirus Prevention Toolkit
College Women's Social Media Toolkit
Rural Oral Health Toolkit
Disaster Recovery Homelessness Toolkit
Pregnancy Social Media Toolkit

Ain't no hammers in there nohow.

Figurative toolkits aren't limited to the U.S. — searching for toolkit yields 1,386 hits like

Tax agent toolkits
Green GB Week toolkit
Workload reduction toolkit
Handypersons financial benefits toolkit
DIP impact toolkit
Digital Inclusion Evaluation Toolkit
Reservist employers toolkit
Supply chain toolkit

Scanning the first 3 of 70 pages of results turns up one from 2009 — so the “Brighton and Hove city council’s ‘trans inclusion schools toolkit’” (originally published in 2014) is not exactly a lexicographical bolt from the blue.

[h/t David Denison]

The obligatory screenshot is here.


  1. David Denison said,

    October 14, 2018 @ 7:50 am

    I believe this column is actually in the Sunday newspaper The Observer, which shares a website with The Guardian.

  2. rcalmy said,

    October 14, 2018 @ 9:37 am

    I think this may be a misnegation where the problem is placement rather than count of the negations. If instead of

    "… the inability of so many of their owners not to comprehend that they are incapable of walking and using these devices at the same time,"

    he had written

    "…the inability of so many of their owners to comprehend that they are not incapable of walking and using these devices at the same time,"

    it would have made so much more sense.

  3. Robert Coren said,

    October 14, 2018 @ 10:38 am

    @ rcalmy: Interesting take. You seem to be assuming that the writer meant to indicate that the people in question are capable of walking while using their phones, whereas I assumed that he meant the opposite.

    The former interpretation would make sense if a common sight was someone standing still (and thus blocking pedestrian traffic) while talking/texting/whatever, whereas I'm pretty sure it's more common to see someone walking while doing these things, but not paying a whole lot of attention to where they're going or whom they're obstructing.

  4. mg said,

    October 14, 2018 @ 10:40 am

    @rcalmy – that still says the opposite of what I presume the author means – that people don't seem to understand that they are not capable of walking and using phones at the same time (certainly my experience navigating the halls at work).

    As to toolkit? My understanding is that a tool is something that helps one accomplish a task. By that definition, tools don't have to be physical objects. The software toolkit provided by our programming core at work helps me as much as my screwdriver does at home (and I use it much more often.)

    [(myl) But it's fair to say that up though 1980 or so, not only were toolkits (or tool-kits or tool kits) made up of physical objects, but also a certain class of physical objects — I don't think that a bag or box containing a spade, a hoe, and a rake would have been called a "toolkit".]

  5. Trogluddite said,

    October 14, 2018 @ 11:28 am


    The most common complaint I hear from smartphone Luddites (and that I also often make as such a person) is that people frequently put themselves and others in danger by walking around while focused on a little screen. Your reading, a complaint that people create obstructions by becoming involuntarily immobile while on their mobile phone, is certainly possible (and rather poetically ironic), but not the somewhat cliched complaint that I assumed the writer was trying to convey.

    Personally I suspect a kind of accidental negative concord. Having already written the word "inability", the writer paused to mentally conjure up a rhetorically effective description of this inability; which is determined to be "not comprehending" something. The writer then continued the sentence by adding the description without the reading back necessary to notice that the negation by "not" was already implicitly there in the word "inability." I may be rather biased by the ease with which I fall into this trap myself when I fumble for an effective phrasing mid-sentence.

  6. Avi Rappoport said,

    October 14, 2018 @ 2:10 pm

    Have they never heard of metaphors and analogies?

  7. ktschwarz said,

    October 14, 2018 @ 3:03 pm

    I agree with @Trogluddite's interpretation. It sounds like the writer was just letting the negatives flow one after another, without bothering to assemble them into a logical structure. Maybe we're all a little bit Pirahã.

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 14, 2018 @ 4:56 pm

    For me, the most normal word for the physical object ("red cantilevered" etc.) described is "toolbox," and "toolkit" is thus already a little less concrete and more abstract and thus more suitable for extended metaphorical senses in which the "tools" are less concrete than hammers and/or needle-nose pliers. But maybe in BrEng "toolkit" is more of the standard word for that very specific physical object?

    The n-gram viewer for the google books corpus, FWIW, shows "toolbox" as generally more common than "toolkit," but shows both spiking in popularity starting in the 1980's, which might be consistent with the growth of extended metaphorical senses of both.

    [(myl) I agree about "toolbox" being the natural word for a toolbox. The core sense of "toolkit", for me, is either a collection of tools sold as a unit in a store, or else a set of tools specifically selected for a particular task.]

  9. David said,

    October 14, 2018 @ 6:15 pm

    Kernighan and Plauger published "Software Tools" in 1976.

  10. wally said,

    October 14, 2018 @ 6:53 pm

    "a spade, a hoe, and a rake"

    Since all of these are sometimes used to describe people, I am trying to come up with an a spade, a ho, and a rake walked into a bar joke.

    Maybe the bartender said this is a bar, not a toolkit. Nah.

  11. mgh said,

    October 14, 2018 @ 7:15 pm

    speaking of hammers, this crooked path could have used a bit of hammering out:
    "parents who won’t let their sons wear a skirt to school possibly being referred to social services"

  12. Trogluddite said,

    October 14, 2018 @ 10:01 pm

    @ J.W. Brewer
    In all the BrE dialects I'm familiar with and my own idiolect, "toolbox" for the container, and "toolkit" for a set of tools, whether literal or figurative, including the container or not, would be normal. As pointed out in the OP, the figurative "toolkit" idiom is common, I imagine from similar "management-jargon" sources. In more ad hoc metaphors, "toolbox" might be used when a set/element relation is expressed; e.g. "I have metaphors in my linguistic toolbox", but I'm not aware of any reason to think that this is a particularly BrE usage.

  13. Bruce Rusk said,

    October 14, 2018 @ 10:21 pm

    According to Google Books, this 1977 book uses the phrase "conceptual toolkit."

  14. rcalmy said,

    October 14, 2018 @ 10:26 pm

    In response to everyone who responded to my earlier comment: Yup. On reflection, I've been a victim of my own misnegation.

  15. Bruce Rusk said,

    October 14, 2018 @ 10:32 pm

    And from 1945, The Woodlot Forester's Tool Kit. And a possible 1922 usage from an insurance sales magazine (needs more checking because Google Books).

  16. Keith said,

    October 15, 2018 @ 5:10 am

    I remember 1980s computing, and the various "programmer's toolkits" that were available at the time, with all kind of neat and nifty tools that had not been provided by the original designers and makers of the computers of the time.

    More interesting, was that the quoted text includes a link to an article in The Telegraph; towards the end of that article, I find one of my bugbears.

    Earlier this year, it emerged that a teacher who was accused of “misgendering” a child was told by police that she had committed a hate crime.

    The teacher, who claimed they were a “grammatical purist”, refused to acknowledge that the pupil self-identified as a boy and failed to use the pupil’s preferred pronouns of “he” or “him”.

    So the first sentence identifies that the teacher is a female, yet the second sentence seeks to hide this fact by referring to the teacher using "singular they".

    I find this kind of phrasing clumsy and pointless.

  17. DWalker07 said,

    October 16, 2018 @ 5:03 pm


    "If… he had written
    "…the inability of so many of their owners to comprehend that they are not incapable of walking and using these devices at the same time,"
    it would have made so much more sense."

    You left out so many potential improvements:

    "…the inability of so _few_ of their owners to _fail to_ comprehend that they are not incapable of walking _nor_ using these devices at _different times_"

    Now, THAT is clear!

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