"[He] is not going to not accept money"

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Nicholas Fandos, "White House Budget Chief Says Shutdown May Extend Into January", NYT 12/23/2018:

Mr. Mulvaney outright rejected Mr. Durbin's offer. "The president is not going to not accept money for a border wall," he said.

Paul Kay's comment:

The problem appears to be, not the number of negatives, but linear order, hence scope. Mulvaney surely doesn't mean that Trump is going to accept money for a border wall (mutually canceling negations) and he also doubtless doesn't intend that Trump is not going to accept money for a border wall (negative concord). What Mulvaney seems to have intended is that Trump will not accept money [that is] not for a border wall. Thus, the right number of negatives, but expressed in syntax that yields a scopal reading belying the speaker's intention. One is reminded of the title of Larry Horn's great paper of the early years "Negative transportation: Unsafe at any speed" (CLS 1971).

I have a slightly different intuition about Mr. Mulvaney's intention, which I'd paraphrase as "A state of affairs in which it's not the case that Trump accepts money for the wall? That's not going to happen." Or something.

Update — the quote has been removed from the NYT story, and in any case didn't give much context, so I fetched it from the source, namely the 12/23/2018 episode of ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos. Here's the first 3:12 of the interview:

And the relevant Q&A:

Q: What's the bottom line for the president? Is he willing to accept anything that does not include money specifically to build new border wall, even if the Democrats, as they have said, are willing to give more money for border security?

A: Sure, and uh b- not gonna tell you what our bottom line is in the negotiation but it's a fair question as to what we would accept.

No the president's not going to 
not accept money
for uh a border wall, now what
one people call a wall another person might call a fence but

 

 



11 Comments

  1. Stuart Luppescu said,

    December 23, 2018 @ 2:24 pm

    I read it as "Trump will not accept money for border security without including the border wall", but if so Mulvaney's sentence is pretty inarticulate.

  2. DaveK said,

    December 23, 2018 @ 2:46 pm

    The literal sense of the statement, as I read it, would be "The president is not going to refuse money for a border wall" but I suspect what was meant was "it's unacceptable to the president not to include money for a border wall in the budget deal".

  3. John from Cincinnati said,

    December 23, 2018 @ 3:16 pm

    I agree with MYL about the meaning.

    Consider:
    Someone: I want you to <action>.
    Me: I am not going to <action>.

    If <action> is "not breathe", saying "not going to not breathe" preserves parallelism, and in context seems perfectly understandable to me.

    Quite similarly, if <action> is for the President to "not accept money for a border wall", it is reasonable to assert that the President is not going to <action>.

    I think this particular double negative rhetorical construction might be the one called litotes, and I am not uneasy to say so.

  4. Paul Kay said,

    December 23, 2018 @ 3:25 pm

    I agree that Mark's interpretation is more consonant with Mulvaney's words than mine and Stuart Luppescu's. But I don't think it's probably closer to Mulvaney's intention because the context is one of Trump's rejecting an offer from Democrats of border-security funding that pointedly excluded money for the wall.

  5. Chris C. said,

    December 23, 2018 @ 3:47 pm

    I agree with MYL. One natural way to say this might be, "He won't accept no money for a border wall," but we've been well-trained to rephrase double negations of this form out of existence.

  6. Rick Rubenstein said,

    December 23, 2018 @ 4:48 pm

    My preferred paraphrasing of the intended meaning would be "He is not going to accept a lack of money for a border wall."

  7. rhr said,

    December 23, 2018 @ 8:17 pm

    Arguably still a misnegation considering alternatives like "will not accept a zero budget allocation".

  8. TIC said,

    December 24, 2018 @ 6:01 am

    It seems to me that the speaker's brain-to-tongue connection might've been confused not only by a pair of negatives but also by a pair of occurrences (with different meanings) of "accept" in the notion he was trying to articulate… Like most commenters above, I suspect that he intended to say something along the lines of, "He will not tolerate (accept) an outcome where he receives (accepts) no border-wall funding"…

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 24, 2018 @ 10:51 am

    Just mentioning that Durbin's offer and with it Mulvaney's rejection have disappeared from the NYT article, so those of us who don't know the context won't be able to suggest our own interpretations.

  10. Ben Summers said,

    December 24, 2018 @ 1:06 pm

    I agree with Mark's interpretation. It seems like Mulvaney is trying to say that the President's intention is to not move forward without money for a border wall.

  11. mgh said,

    December 25, 2018 @ 7:56 pm

    part of the problem is that "accept money" here is political-speak for "get money" or "win money", similar to political pseudo-humble "serve" for "get elected" or "win the election".

    if the quote were "The president is not going to not get money for a border wall" then it would still take a second to process, but there would not be issues about placement/scope.

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