Losing the battle

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Elizabeth Wydra, "Chief Justice John Roberts is under tremendous pressure", CNN 5/10/2019:

As the Supreme Court strives to finish its work by the end of June — deciding on issues from the future of the census to the ability of politicians to draw their own legislative districts — the justices labor in their chambers at a particularly fraught moment in our country's history. The pressure may be greatest on Chief Justice John Roberts.

Try as he might — and some might question whether he is trying hard enough lately — Roberts is in danger of losing his battle to keep most Americans from seeing the court he leads as divorced from politics.

It's a political commonplace that Roberts wants Americans to see the Supreme Court as divorced from politics. But the article tells us that he's trying "to keep most Americans from seeing the court […] as divorced from politics", which turns his intentions upside down. Wrapping this phrase inside the assertion that he's "in danger of losing his battle ___" helps to disguise the problem, but doesn't change it.

This is an interesting case of misnegation in which all of the negative words are lexical and implicit — not even morphologically marked — so that the "poor monkey brains" explanation seems to be the only one left standing.

The obligatory screenshot:

[h/t David Russinoff]


  1. Rosalie Fay said,

    May 12, 2019 @ 1:27 am

    It seems to me that part of the problem is that there are two idioms "keep s.o. V-ing" and "keep s.o. from V-ing" which have contrary meanings but use the same main verb "keep". In many idioms involving a verb and a prepositional complement, the verb carries the meaning and the preposition doesn't add any more; here, though, it's critical to the meaning, whether the preposition is present or not.

  2. Jen in Edinburgh said,

    May 12, 2019 @ 2:03 pm

    'Divorced' is an odd word to use if you actually mean operating independently in a positive sense – I read through it a few times without finding a problem, because I took the meaning to be something like 'oblivious to the ways in which political decisions/reality affect our lives and actions'.

  3. George said,

    May 12, 2019 @ 2:49 pm

    I had a very similar reaction to Jen in Edinburgh – 'divorced' tends to be used in negative expressions like 'divorced from reality'. And maybe that's part of what allowed this misnegation to slip through, a sense that of course somebody wouldn't want people to think of something they're supposed to look up to as being institutionally naive.

  4. ktschwarz said,

    May 12, 2019 @ 6:31 pm

    Our old friends "fail to miss" and "fills a much-needed gap" are also examples where the negative words are all lexical and implicit. I bet there are a lot more out there.

  5. Bob Ladd said,

    May 13, 2019 @ 4:29 am

    And I had the same reaction as Rosalie Fay – the problem is the word from.

  6. TIC said,

    May 13, 2019 @ 6:24 am

    The sentence at issue here is a *great* example of this sort of devilish misnegation… I read through it several times before recognizing the flaw at its core… Outwardly, it flows along quite smoothly and straightforwardly, with little indication of the churn of competing currents just below the surface… In addition to all the factors identified above, it's chock full of terms and concepts that subliminally — and evident only upon careful consideration — suggest contradiction, competition, and contrast… Even when I somewhat deliberately dissected it, I was pretty much oblivious to all the whipsawing inherent in the wording and phrasing (and internal punctuation)… I paused to briefly ponder only 1) the suggestion, right or wrong, that Roberts' interest is more in managing perception than reality and 2) whether "divorced", with its implication of a change from a previous state, is the word I'd've chosen… In the end, I'm left wondering whether *any* reader — whether or not already acquainted with Roberts' interest in an apolitical court — would interpret the sentence literally and conclude that the Chief Justice actually wants the Supreme Court to be seen as politically motivated… Probably not, of course… And that, I suppose, is yet another reason why this sentence, with a bit of "foregone conclusion", is so effective in obscuring its fundamental flaw…

  7. Grover Jones said,

    May 13, 2019 @ 7:37 am

    "Divorced" is indeed weird diction here. So much so that I wonder if it originally said "divided by politics," which would've been of course correct. Maybe an overzealous editor or last-minute rewrite is to blame.

  8. ktschwarz said,

    May 13, 2019 @ 10:05 am

    I'm surprised that readers are finding "divorced from politics" weird. Google shows that it's a common phrase, especially when associated with "court", though not as common as "driven by politics" and "divided by politics".

    An audience-reaction data point: this op-ed was linked this morning from SCOTUSblog, with the very sentence we're discussing pulled out and quoted unironically.

  9. TIC said,

    May 13, 2019 @ 11:26 am

    I, for one, didn't find 'divorced' jarring, problematic, or inapt… It just seemed to me that, with its connotation of a status that has *changed* from a previous one, it perhaps wasn't quite the mot juste… It occurred to me that 'distanced' might have been a better fit… Also, as I failed to mention earlier, the notion that Roberts seeks to keep (only) 'most Americans' — as opposed to 'all Americans', or just 'Americans', or simply 'the public' — from seeing the court in an unflattering light struck me as a bit off… In that respect, I suspect that the writer's word choice was influenced by some poll showing what the majority of Americans think on the subject… Clearly, she was trying to pack a lot, and perhaps a bit too much, into that one sentence… And her mistake is one that I could very easily see myself making…

  10. TIC said,

    May 14, 2019 @ 7:37 am

    I'm intrigued by your analysis, Rosalie Fay… I've been pondering it, but I'm perhaps a bit unimaginative… Can you provide an example or two of the "many idioms involving a verb and a prepositional complement [where] the verb carries the meaning and the preposition doesn't add any more"?…

  11. ktschwarz said,

    May 16, 2019 @ 1:23 am

    OK, TIC, thanks for clarifying the question about "divorced from". This is a job for lexicographers. For example:

    m-w.com: divorce (2) to make or keep separate. I think "or keep" supports the interpretation that divorce doesn't necessarily imply change, at least in American usage.

    oxforddictionaries.com : divorce, 1.1. Separate or dissociate (something) from something else, typically with an undesirable effect. That supports a negative connotation, at least in British usage.

    Of course, this is just scratching the surface. Is there a more thorough discussion in the OED or usage guides? Anyway, thanks to all above for opening my eyes to this variation.

  12. TIC said,

    May 16, 2019 @ 6:54 am

    Thanks, ktschwarz, for the very interesting and informative points… When I consider the word 'divorced' I instinctively *do* think of a change in status and *don't* necessarily think of an undesirable effect… But I'll grant that the latter is probably a common aspect of the word's connotation(s)… It occurs to me now that, perhaps inconsistently, I don't necessarily think of a change in status when I think of the words 'married' and 'wed(ded)'…

    Since you've enlightened me on the 'divorced' aspect of the above comments, perhaps you (or the original commenters?) can now help me with the 'from' aspect… It seems to me that 'from' (something else) is automatically implied — if not, as seems usually the case, stated — in connection with 'divorced'… Just as 'to' (something else) — whether stated or not — is inherent in connection with 'married' and 'wed'… So why, I'm left wondering, is the presence of the word 'from' in the sentence at issue here salient to some commenters' interpretations/analyses?…

  13. Chris Travers said,

    May 16, 2019 @ 6:55 am

    As a colleague of mine puts it, "*I* know what I mean."

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