Nothing uncontroversial

« previous post | next post »

John Podheretz, tweeting about Wayne LaPierre's proposal to put armed guards in every American school:

When he wrote "… there was nothing uncontroversial about …", he clearly meant "… there was nothing controversial about …"

Where did the extra un- come from? A blend of "uncontroversial" and "nothing controversial"? A bit of emphatic overnegation? Both?

Anyhow, JPod isn't the first person to use "nothing uncontroversial" to mean "nothing controversial".

Rafael Núñez, "Creating mathematical infinities: Metaphor, blending, and the beauty of transfinite cardinals", Journal of Pragmatics 2005:

There is nothing uncontroversial about these everyday notions, to the point that we totally take them for granted. In fact, decades ago, the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget described in detail how these fundamental notions get organized quite early in children’s cognitive development without explicit goal-oriented education.

Rafaez Núñez, "Enacting Infinity: Bringing Transfinite Cardinals Into Being", in John Robert Stewart et al., Eds., Enaction: Toward a New Paradigm for Cognitive Science, 2010:

"Re: Cosmic radiation does cause dead pixels", Digital Photography Review 7/6/2011:

Nothing uncontroversial there. It stands to reason that a larger surface area means more absorbed radiation.

Massimiliano Amarante et al., "Contracting for Innovation under Ambiguity", Center on Capitalism and Society 2012:

While (ex ante) different agents might have different views (i.e., different probability distributions), the information conveyed by the market eventually leads them to entertain the same view: at an economy's equilibrium no two agents are willing to bet against each other about the uncertainty's resolution. Thus, in classical theories, there is nothing uncontroversial about the way one deals with uncertainty.

Update — It's worth noting that several other phrases with a similar number of negatives do not show any similar tendency towards misnegations: "not uncontroversial", "not at all uncontroversial", "never uncontroversial", … Why this difference? Is it because these are all (modified) modifiers, while "nothing uncontroversial" is post-modified noun phrase?

[Tip of the hat to Ian Preston]


  1. Evan Morris said,

    December 21, 2012 @ 5:30 pm

    Judging by the borderline incoherence of "just did is until he spoke," et seq., I'd say "nothing uncontroversial" was a typical Twitter editing error born of futzing with word length on a small screen.

  2. Marcelo said,

    December 21, 2012 @ 6:19 pm

    Maybe it's a blend of "unconventional" and "controversial".

  3. Faldone said,

    December 21, 2012 @ 6:35 pm

    Funny. I had no problem reading that "… just did is until he spoke …" and, going back and looking at it in context I still have no problem with it. Breaking it out of context like that, though, it sure does look like it should be incomprehensible. Might could be cleared up a bit with a that and a couple of commas:

    "The awful part of what LaPierre did is that, until he spoke, there was nothing (un)controversial about having security at schools."

  4. Aaron Toivo said,

    December 21, 2012 @ 8:27 pm

    The interesting part to me is that I feel "nothing controversial" is somehow wrong: it's missing an important un-. Obviously in the standard language it's neither necessary nor even allowed, for the intended meaning. But in terms of English as I've natively acquired it, something is definitely crying out for an un- there.

    I can only assume this is connected to my general preference of "unthaw" over "thaw" for anything taken out of the freezer. There's just something very strange about omitting the prefix from it, despite the puzzled looks I occasionally get.

    [(myl) Interesting observation. The "unthawed" case is somewhat like "unpacked", which is commonly used to mean "not unpacked", i.e. "(still) packed". Both of those involve a change of state, though, and it's not clear to me that "uncontroversial" can work the same way. In particular, "uncontroversial" alone isn't used to mean "controversial".]

  5. Felix said,

    December 21, 2012 @ 9:27 pm

    I think he meant what he said, that until the NRA co-opted the idea, putting an armed guard at every school would not have been controversial. But as soon as the NRA was connected with the idea, it became controversial.

  6. Ellen K. said,

    December 21, 2012 @ 10:15 pm

    Felix, I agree with you that's what he meant. (Except the "armed" part, which I'm not sure about.) But I don't agree with you that he said what he meant.

  7. R. Sabey said,

    December 22, 2012 @ 12:23 am

    @MYL I disagree with your reply to Aaron. Aaron's "unthaw" is like "unloose", which mathematician J E Littlewood defined as "loose into a state of un". By contrast, "pack(ed)" can't take an "un-" which has that meaning; if you take things out of a case, you unpack the case, and this is the standard meaning of un- applied to a verb; using "still unpacked" to mean "still packed; not yet unpacked" is misnegation pure and simple.

    [(myl) You thus agree with Geoff Nunberg, but disagree with several eminent lexicographers.]

  8. John Walden said,

    December 22, 2012 @ 3:02 am

    Is it because contra/contro is itself a negative prefix that writers and speakers lose count of the negatives?

    Going off on another tack. "We have left undone those things which we ought to have done" is different from the present-day "undo" in its sense of "unfasten".

    Another that springs to mind is "unpick". "Unpicked fruit" hasn't been picked but an "unpicked hem" has had its stitches cut. Unless that has a different etymology in some sewing term like "pique".

    So at a long stretch "nothing uncontroversial" might mean "nothing which reveals more contoversy" . But I'm not buying it. I think somebody lost count.

  9. Aaron Toivo said,

    December 22, 2012 @ 6:14 am

    In my head, "it is still unpacked" is referring to a continued state, and basically means "it is still un-taken-care-of", thus still in a box. It's as though the verb root is contributing less than usual to the clause; as though it only brings in state-of-packedness without saying much about which state is at hand, that being supplied by the rest of the clause. That's the feeling I have of this. I'm not sure I'd ever use "it's still packed" to mean something is still-to-be-packed, but I'm also not sure I don't! Whereas for actions, "it got unpacked" and "it got packed" would never in a million years appear in my speech meaning anything other than what they mean in standard English. So my usage here is constrained by rules – it may be error, but if so it is a conditioned error, not a random one.

    But, then, unthawing. State versus action seems less important here: whether "something is unthawing" on the counter or "I'm unthawing it", I need the un- either way. "Thaw" by itself does not even feel like a valid verb. It has to be "unthaw" or else "thaw out". The "out" also fills the need, so I misspoke earlier: I only need the prefix if the verb is not paired with "out".

    That's as far as I've gotten in analyzing this. Perhaps I'm too affected by the usual pitfalls of self-analysis for it to be worth anything. I fell into one with "thaw" at first, connecting it to the same state-action distinction as with "unpacked", thinking they were connected uses. But as always when I write something, I read it back to myself under my breath to make sure it all holds together, and I was quite struck to notice that in doing so I had put an un- even on the instances of "thaw" that I'd written without it. In light of that evidence I deleted most of what had been a much longer paragraph.

  10. GeorgeW said,

    December 22, 2012 @ 6:40 am

    I think 'still unpacked' implies a stronger intention to remove the contents that 'still packed' does not.

  11. Gene Callahan said,

    December 22, 2012 @ 9:13 am

    @Felix: "I think he meant what he said, that until the NRA co-opted the idea, putting an armed guard at every school would not have been controversial. But as soon as the NRA was connected with the idea, it became controversial."

    Yes, that is what he meant. But what he *said* was the exact opposite of that.

  12. Andrew Filer said,

    December 22, 2012 @ 4:45 pm

    Like Aaron Toivo, my mother has a preference for "unthaw". I'd never heard "loose into a state of un-" before, but I think that clarifies the logic behind "unthaw": "thaw into a state of unfrozenness". Could this be a German-style construction? My mother's parents grew up speaking German, but my mother only ever learned English.

  13. Greg Green said,

    December 22, 2012 @ 9:16 pm

    I would imagine it was based on the model of "nothing unusual".

  14. John Walden said,

    December 23, 2012 @ 3:20 am

    Further to my earlier thought there are a fair number of ghits for similar "not un contras" such as:

    However, developing challenge whilst effecting and maintaining rapport are not uncontradictory objectives

    The old Cypriot woman's story is suggestive testimony: to the simultaneous though not uncontradictory telling of personal and official history

    which presumably mean the opposite of what they say, but I am anything but not completely unsure about that.

  15. Martha said,

    December 26, 2012 @ 11:45 pm

    I'm confused by "still unpacked," which I'm pretty sure I've never heard before now. "Still unpacked" = "remaining packed," so that unpacked = packed? Like deboned = boned. (It's still nonsensical to me. The only way I could find myself using "still unpacked" is in something like, "Your clothes are still unpacked!? We're leaving for the airport in five minutes!")

    I always thought that the "un" in "unthaw" had something to do with some sort of analogy with "defrost."

RSS feed for comments on this post