Inside out

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Brian Costa, "Rory McIlroy’s British Open Chances Collapse on the First Hole", WSJ 7/18/2019 [emphasis added]:

Rory McIlroy stepped into the first tee box at Royal Portrush on Thursday morning and waved to a roaring crowd. He knew it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience: his opening tee shot at the first British Open held in his native country in more than half a century. […]

This is the same course where, as a 16-year-old amateur in 2005, he shot a 61, which remains the course record. This is a tournament in which McIlroy has not failed to finish outside the top five since 2013 (he missed it with an injury in 2015). This is a player who, as measured by strokes gained—which compares a player’s score to the field average—has been the best on the PGA Tour this season.


This is a tournament in which he has not finished outside the top five since 2013

This in tournament in which he has not failed to finish in the top five since 2013

Simmer briefly, stir well, and serve on a bed of misnegations.

The obligatory screenshot:

[h/t Ron Irving]



  1. Cervantes said,

    July 19, 2019 @ 8:19 am

    The word "fail" may also contribute to the writer's confusion. To finish outside the top 5 would be a failure.

    You could say "he has not failed by finishing outside the top 5 . . ." So the writer is thinking that he hasn't failed in 5 years in the way he did yesterday.

  2. Jerry Packard said,

    July 19, 2019 @ 10:43 am

    I’m sure greater minds than mine have offered this, but misnegation seems to be a simple overriding of syntax by semantics, suggesting the ineffectual nature of syntactic coding. 99.9% of readers will interpret it as the author intended.

  3. ktschwarz said,

    July 19, 2019 @ 2:09 pm

    Searching on "failed to finish outside" demonstrates that this is a pretty common misnegation in sports writing. It also occurs in other ranked competitions, such as politics:

    Yet, until 2012, the winner of the Ames Straw Poll had never failed to finish outside the top three on caucus night.

    in God at the Grassroots 2016: The Christian Right in American Politics edited by Mark J. Rozell and Clyde Wilcox. (In the 2012 election, Michele Bachmann was #1 in the Ames Straw Poll but #6 in the Iowa Caucuses; this was the first time the two had been so divergent.)

    There are also uses of "failed" which aren't misnegations but sound weird to me, e.g. "the Lakers took home two titles and failed to finish outside of the top-eight in the rest." For these writers, "failed" is completely bleached of any implications of trying or obligation and is simply a general negative.

    Checking MWCDEU: there are indeed some critics who agree with me that you can't fail at something you didn't or shouldn't try to do. MW says that's a "lost cause" and the general-negative use is established — but I'm not convinced by their examples. Any lexicographers want to weigh in?

  4. dainichi said,

    July 20, 2019 @ 2:18 am

    In my opinion, the most interesting feature of the passage is that it’s “a player”, not “the player” in

    > This is a player who […] has been the best on the PGA Tour […]

    I’m guessing it was chosen to mirror the “a tournament” in the previous sentence. But it’s still borderline ungrammatical to me. Acceptable as journalese, maybe.

  5. ktschwarz said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 12:22 am

    The online story has been corrected: it now reads "McIlroy has not failed to finish in the top five since 2013".

    As for "This is a player who…", it sounds fine to me. Did you want it to be "the player" because only one can be "the best on the PGA Tour"? That would also be acceptable, but not necessary.

  6. Steve Bacher said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 3:47 pm

    Frankly, I am more disturbed by "compares a player's score to the field average", which of course should be "compares … with".

  7. Rodger C said,

    July 23, 2019 @ 4:31 pm

    Steve: I was taught that it was "compare to" vs. "contrast with," but this now strikes me as one of those things made up by peevers sitting around frightening each other. (Or one another.)

  8. Steve Bacher said,

    July 27, 2019 @ 6:38 pm

    To be honest, I did not become aware of the "compare with" vs. "compare to" distinction until fairly recently. But since then, I've been unable to ignore it.

    And it's not just pedantry. Consider the following two statements, which mean very different things:

    1. Atlantic City has been unfavorably compared to Las Vegas.

    2. Atlantic City has been unfavorably compared with Las Vegas.

    Statement no. 1 condemns Atlantic City as a hotbed of sinful activity. Statement no. 2 laments Atlantic City's relative lack of economic success.

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