I can do pretty much whatever minus not being stupid

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I just really like this sentence from the Baltimore Orioles' Nolan Reimold, who is recovering slowly from a herniated disk in his neck. "I can do pretty much whatever minus not being stupid." I find that a great sentence that could be used in a lot of situations, e.g. retirement …

No big linguistic point. Just three nice little dialectal variants in a row — that use of "whatever"; "minus" in place of "except for", and the inclusion of "not" in such a context. I think they've all been discussed in posts at one time or another, but this three-in-a-row is a gem, plus [oh, there's a 'plus'; I'm infected] I love the sentiment.

Let's see, I'm supposed to be mildly scholarly, so I should at least try to look up past posts to link to.

On 'whatever' (vs 'anything'), here. (by the way, I couldn't find that by searching in Language Log's search box on "whatever" — that got hundreds of irrelevant hits, maybe everything where the word 'whatever' occurred anywhere in a post. I found it by Googling on [ "Language Log" "whatever"]. Google seemed to understand relevance somehow.

On 'minus' as a subordinating conjunction (or maybe as a preposition in the class with "except"), here — no, I couldn't find any. There's a lot about 'plus' as a conjunction in informal style in Huddleston and Pullum's Cambridge English Grammar , but I don't see anything anywhere about minus in this kind of use. Does anyone know of any discussion of it?

On 'except for not X' vs 'except for X' (and similar alternations after 'miss', etc), — hmm, maybe I don't know how to search LLog well enough, because I couldn't readily find anything about that there. But when I googled on "except for not", I found lots of perfectly standard ones (like “It was great, except for not being part of "their" plan.”– that 'not' is essential, and omitting it is impossible without changing the meaning), and also a few with this possibly "extra" 'not", like this:

I'm *everywhere* – except for not really *here*.   (here)

Hmm, that example suggests a path of development:

(i) afterthought exception: I'm everywhere. Except I'm not really here.

(ii) Normal exception phrase: I'm everywhere except (for) here.

(iii) a kind of blend — also syntactically — between (i) and (ii) — I'm *everywhere* – except for not really *here*.

Arnold Zwicky might know about the actual development – I'm just speculating. Or Larry Horn, negation specialist extraordinaire.

OK, enough of that — well, trying to be scholarly about it IS interesting, especially realizing that I couldn't find anything about that use of "minus" and now wondering if it's new, and whether it has arisen from the widespread use of "plus". (I long ago noticed that my baseball brother uses "Plus" sentence-initially far more frequently than "And". I think.) And realizing that the "except not" stuff is interesting.

But still what I like best is just that sentence itself! I may add it to my signature file.


  1. Dan Lufkin said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 1:06 pm

    Isn't this where your average lawyer would use "absent"?

  2. Sili said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 1:13 pm

    Interesting. As a maths teacher I do my damnedest to get my pupils to stop using "minus" as a verb. I wish I could let it go, but I fear the external examiners are not all as descriptivist as I try to be.

  3. Barbara Partee said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 1:19 pm

    Verb?? I can't think of any verb that could be put in there in place of "minus". Unless you mean some sort of participial expression like "allowing for".

  4. Jon Weinberg said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 1:28 pm

    Maybe it's me, but "minus" isn't here being used in place of "except for", is it? "I can do pretty much whatever except for not being stupid", to me, would mean that the speaker can do anything except that he's incapable of not being stupid. But I assume that Reimold meant something different — that he can do anything, subject to the constraint that he should not be stupid / do things that, under the circumstances, would be stupid. I don't recall seeing "minus" used this way.

  5. Brian said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 1:44 pm

    Isn't this a clear misnegation? "I can do pretty much whatever, minus being stupid." Subtract "being stupid" from the set of all things (i.e. whatever), and that's what I can do.

  6. rootlesscosmo said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 1:45 pm

    A recent article in the London review of Books about François Hollande translates his "je me suis dit bof" as "I just thought, whatever."

  7. Lauren said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 1:47 pm

    @Jon Weinberg – I am under the impression that the 'minus' here *is* being used in the same way as 'except for', but that it is also part of the misnegation LL's previous post discusses.

    Additionally, I am part of a young linguistic demographic, but using 'plus' and 'minus' as conjunctions strikes me as very generic, maybe even standard. In fact, I was unaware that their use *wasn't* standard! (…though it is also clearly inappropriate for formal registers.) How very interesting, indeed.

  8. Simon Wright said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 1:54 pm

    Agreeing with Jon: I could understand "minus being stupid". "minus not being stupid" seems like a double negation gone wrong.

    Barbara, here in the UK it's become regrettably common to use times as a verb, e.g. "timesing 3 by 5 gives 15". I think Sili is thinking of a similar treatment of minus.

  9. Murray Smith said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 1:54 pm

    One of the usages for which George V. Higgins — dialogue writer extraordinaire — will be eternally remembered is the conjunction "plus which".

  10. GeorgeW said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 2:08 pm

    "Just three nice little dialectal variants in a row — that use of "whatever"; "minus" in place of "except for" . . ."

    I which dialects is 'minus' used like this? I don't think I have ever encountered it (SoAmE speaker).

  11. M (was L) said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 2:09 pm

    > Isn't this a clear misnegation?

    Yes, it is a clearly proper negation. He can do any member of the set of actions known as "whatever" excluding those requiring him to "not be stupid."

    Isn't it?

  12. M (was L) said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 2:12 pm

    My point, and I hit enter too soon, is that sometimes a stray negation is accepted, or ignored, or whatever the technical term is for the opposite of eliding, a word I've learned on this here board.

    Is this a clear misnegation? Isn't this a clear misnegation?

    Both of them offer the same choices – either it is, or else it ain't not no misnegation nohow. Don't they?

  13. Barry Ross said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 2:17 pm

    I have also been spectacularly unsuccessful in finding old LL posts I know are there, somewhere, using the LL search function. I have marveled at how Mark Liberman seems to effortlessly amass citations and have been tempted to ask.

    As to the sentence, it is marvelous. I can't quite parse it in one go; like someone above, my sense is that he is saying that, barring stupidity in choosing what he is capable of doing,he should be able to do most anything. There is a lovely economy in the choice of 'minus' as a matter of limitation.

  14. Brian said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 2:31 pm

    To me this doesn't at all feel like a case where the negatives are reinforcing each other. Instead they unambiguously cancel each other out. But many others here don't read it that way, from what I can tell. Thus my question.

  15. jaypatrick said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 2:37 pm

    Very interesting sentence. As I read it, the sentence says he:

    – can do [in actuality]
    – pretty much whatever [the set of conceivable actions]
    – minus [subtracting]
    – not being stupid [the set of conceivable actions that are smart/neutral]

    So he is saying that he can, in actuality, only do stupid things, and that but for the limitation imposed by stupidity, he could do almost anything. Correct?

  16. Nicholas Waller said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 3:19 pm

    I read him as saying "I can do almost anything, though being 'not stupid' is one of the things I can't guarantee to do". It sounds as though he is saying he is pretty well physically recovered and can do stuff, but he is human and is liable to do something stupid (that might put back his recovery).

  17. M (was L) said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 3:54 pm

    And you wonder why the jargon of actual baseball is hard to place into neat bins.

    This is how ballplayers talk.

    (It's because so many of them majored in Communications.)

  18. Lazar said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 4:00 pm

    @Simon Wright: "To times" and "to minus" are common here in the US as well – lots of my peers used it at school, and even some of my teachers. It's always grated on me.

  19. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 4:30 pm

    I read it as, "I can do whatever, except [the requirement of] not being stupid" or "I have no limitations except not being stupid." However, I don't know how I could tell this from an ordinary misnegation. I don't see other examples like it in a quick Google.

  20. Robert Coren said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 4:41 pm

    Given that he is a professional athlete recovering from an injury, I'm going to make a guess at what he really meant:

    "I can do just about anything that I could normally do, but I have to be careful not to be stupid [by trying to do too much]."

    It's true that it's no easy task (in fact, it's probably impossible) to get that by a linguistic analysis of what he said, even allowing for misnegation, but there tends to be a bit of stream-of-consciousness to this kind of comment.

  21. HP said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 6:28 pm

    I read it as, "I am recovering well from my injury, but I still feel a bit foolish for having injured myself doing something stupid."

    No misnegation.

  22. Ethan said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 9:48 pm

    I don't see a misnegation. "The set of things I can do is unlimited, except for the restriction that I must not be stupid".

  23. dw said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 10:16 pm

    My interpretation, based on the context, is:

    My doctors have told me that I'm allowed to do all the physical activities I normally do when fit, but that I should not be stupid and try to do too much too soon.

    He talks about his surgeon in the previous sentence.

  24. Jason said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 2:04 am

    It's clearly a misnegation to me. Nerd types use "modulo" in the same context, eg

    "I can do whatever I want modulo being stupid",
    "All bug tickets have been resolved modulo Not Actually A Bug ones."

  25. Raj said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 4:36 am

    @M(was L), baseball players don't major in Communications. In fact, they generally don't major in anything as most professionals were drafted right out of high school (or plucked from Latin/Central/South America at the age of 17).

  26. Mr Punch said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 8:05 am

    I read it as Robert Coren does; other interpretations seem like quibbles. As for "plus which" (@ Murray Smith) I'm from Boston as George V. Higgins was, and I've been hearing that since long before he published anything.

  27. Ralph Hickok said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 8:13 am

    That's really not true. As an educated guess, I'd say about half of the players selected in the annual MLB draft are coming out of college.

    According to Moneyball (the Michael Lewis book, not the movie) one of the tenets of Billy Beane, the GM of the Oakland Athletics, is that it's better to draft college players rather than high school players, because they're more mature and their stats are more likely to indicate their true potential on the MLB level.

  28. M (was L) said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 10:09 am

    @Ralph Hickock – Yes, but who are we kidding? The culture of the ballfield is not the culture of the opera house. A ballplayer speaks in ballplayer register, at least when playing ball or talking about it or in that context – and an on-field interview with a sports reporter while in team uniform, is that context.

    (Not to suggest that any star athlete has ever gotten through college on the scenic route. That NEVER happens. Although in fairness, it happens more neverly in baseball than in the money sports of football and basketball.)

    How he speaks at other times may vary, but ballplayer register isn't very edjumacated.

    Whatever you say about that sentence, you say about the register, not necessarily about anything else.

  29. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 11:00 am

    M (was L)

    Regarding, as you put it, "ballplayer register", I recall as a youngster, stretched prone every Saturday morning during baseball season on the living-room floor in front of our tiny B&W TV screen back in Toronto, watching the Major League game of the week, w/ former pitching whiz, Dizzy Dean and former Dodgers' stellar short-stop, Pee Wee Reese, calling the play-by-play action.

    Dizzy, truth be told, likely never finished high school and turned pro at a relatively formative age, w/ all the rough edges of a talented, and eager country boy just itchin' to play pro ball.

    I remember, as one of the early sports announcers on this relatively new medium of TV, a signature Dizzy phrase that has always stuck in my noggin' over the years, that being, "…. as you seen on your screen", as he was describing a particular play that had just gone down on the field.

    Even as a wet-behind-the-ears eight, or nine year old, I knew Dizzy could play a tad fast and loose w/ the English language; yet that was just HIM, w/ no put-on airs about it. But for me, as a kid, it just endeared me to his on-air persona even more.

    So he would mangle the occasional sentence, or stumble grammatically once in a while doing his announcer thing, but his effusive enthusiasm for the game, his innate folksy charm, and the warm chemistry between him, and the more urbane Pee Wee always made those Saturday mornings the highlight of this young ball fan's week.

    Just couldn't wait to start the weekend off w/ my pals 'Diz' and Pee Wee. (Well, after the cartoons, of course. HA!)

  30. M (was L) said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 12:06 pm

    This young Mets fan grew up with the sometimes-marble-mouthed Ralph Kiner, who did a perfectly credible job until he was required to announce ads for Mitsubishi. That, I have to admit, was nothing short of tragic.

    Some of that stuff might even be put-on for the fans, and there are of course differences between Diz's day and now. And of course they didn't call him Dizzy without reason. His taciturn brother Paul never fit the reporters' notion of calling him Daffy and the name never stuck; Dizzy and Daffy were an attractive pair of tags, but the truth was Dizzy and Paul.

    So. How much of this plays to camera – or to microphone? I suspect a great deal. Baseball is entertainment, and good interviews are entertainment – and here good means entertaining.

    Cutting loose with natural stream-of-consciousness in the register of pine tar and spit is good televishun.

    Or maybe he's just a jock after all.

  31. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 1:12 pm

    Leaving the possible misnegation issue to the side, note that "minus" is actually a more apt mathematical metaphor in many contexts than the nerdier "modulo." X modulo Y is by definition <Y, right (assuming positive integers)? So unless the construction experienced semantic drift by becoming metaphorical (which is certainly possible), anything described as "modulo" something else constitutes the scraps or leftovers of whatever you started with (the "remainder" as it was called when we were learning long division in elementary school) and is thus presumptively trivial or at least comparatively unimportant.

  32. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 1:34 pm

    M (was L),

    Points well taken regarding Dizzy and his sports announcing ilk perhaps, at times, laying on the homey, folkiness a little thick, on purpose, for the 'entertainment ' value. After all, baseball is a game…. although these days, a very lucrative business proposition for the team owners and the mega-star players, alike.

    In the same vein as 'Diz' being true to his 'dizziness', or let's just say his quirky off-the-wall antics, even in the announcer's both, in our local L.A. TV market, we have a native born-and-bred Tennesseean, Huell Howser, who has been working in the L.A. regiion for over 30 years now, hosting a fine out-in-the-field human-interest-type show exploring (and filming) the infinite places, people, and things that might tickle his fancy throughout the Golden State. The show is called simply, "California Gold", and airs regularly on our local PBS stations.

    My point here is that this amiable broadcast journalist/ filmmaker, still retains his distinctive Tennessee, treacly smooth drawl, which some fans of the show simple love, (most, I'd say), while others who still enjoy Huell's out-and-about laid-back interviews and close-quarters reportage, actually suspect he's pumping up the folksy, Southern bit in his camera delivery, for, as you put it, "entertainment" value, and wish he would soft-pedal it a tad.

    I confess I've been a loyal Huell aficionado for decades now, watching him age with grace and humility; but still, to this day retaining the boyish wonder and enthusiasm he brought to his telecasts when he was just starting out.

    And I must say, still retaining, for me and countless others, that completely engaging Southern drawl (embellished, or otherwise), giving us the feeling that we're all just sitting on the front porch of some old southern farmhouse, shootin' the breeze, and savoring the moments, w/ Huell being the life of 'the party', as it were.

  33. Barbara Partee said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 5:29 pm

    I'm sure it means that he can do pretty much whatever he wants, within reason, i.e. he shouldn't do stupid things.
    So yes, it's like "except for being stupid" and you can call that extra 'not' a misnegation if you want, but there are plenty of grammatical constructions in various languages where what would look like a misnegation if you put it on the logic cutting-board has become an obligatory part of the construction. Where my dialect of English has "more than I ever saw before", there are various languages, and I think some dialects of English, that insist on "more than I never saw before". (There's something like that in a song that starts out, "Last night I dreamed the strangest dream I never dreamed before")
    Some misnegations are clearly errors in everybody's dialect; but others are not so clearly errors, but things that arise very naturally (Jespersen discussed this a hundred years ago) from the tendency to reinforce negation with more negation, and these can sometimes make it into the language, first as non-standard or informal and maybe later as standard. (I think it's common in comparative constructions in various languages (as if 'I had more money than he didn't have') and in until-constructions.
    So I think the "minus" and the "not" are sharing the work, much in the way a double negation might in languages that routinely use double negation to mean a negative, not a positive.
    And I don't know any 'standard' paraphrase that captures exactly that meaning as efficiently — alternatives I can think of sound awkward or too formal or just more wordy. So I continue to like it!

  34. M (was L) said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 7:00 pm

    @Alex McCrae – all entertainers play characters – the radio traffic reporter is either playing the character of somebody who gets excited, every single morning, by delay times… or else he's found the one and only job that fits this bizarre obsession. I prefer to think he's being professional.

    There is no natural speech on camera. There can't be; everybody is self-conscious.

    This is not a limitation; people consciously control their speech in all kinds of situations. They still have to be understood (or, now and again, they need to be misunderstood).

    But when it's entertainment, form is as entertaining as content. Any pro with with a microphone is performing, but analysis of the performance can still be very revealing.

    Consciously or thoughtlessly, this is the speech of the diamond.

    Let's face it, Casey Stengel did most of it for effect, and the effect excused the rest of it.

  35. D.O. said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 10:07 pm

    @Sili, Barbara Partee (1:19pm). I think, Sili meant not the phrase you are working with, but something along the lines "if I want to find how many apples left after 3 were taken and there were 5 before, I should minus three from five". Or even simpler "when 3 minuses 5 it's 2".
    By the way. In Russian chess notation taking of a piece is indicated by a colon. For example, if a Knight takes something on f3, it will be recorded as K:f3, the same as American writes as Nxf3. And I heard much more than ones, without a hint of irony, an expression from Russian chess players which can be translated as "the Knight divides on f3".

  36. Nathan Myers said,

    October 2, 2012 @ 4:35 am

    I find myself oddly disappointed to find that he wasn't actually expressing humility. I identified strongly with what I thought he was saying.

    That misunderstanding, I think, is what makes it a misnegation.

  37. Toby Berla said,

    December 3, 2012 @ 3:51 pm

    Regarding the use of "minus" in specifying a set of possibilities, I suggest that the source may be the use of "-" [minus sign] in queries submitted to internet search engines. For example, if I want to find pages that refer to "silverman" but not "sarah", I can google "silverman -sarah":


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