Lack of inaction

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From a recent article on the Vanity Fair site by Abigail Tracy ("'There's Blood on the Hands of Members of Congress': Frustrated Democrats Debate Strategy as Mitch McConnell Holds Gun Control in His Pocket," published Aug. 6):

Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who was elected weeks before the 2012 mass shooting in Newton, Connecticut, expressed dismay at the lack of inaction in Congress.

Obligatory screenshot:

It's our old friend, misnegation. Murphy was surely expressing dismay at the lack of action, or inaction, in Congress.

The overnegated "lack of inaction" pops up frequently in edited prose, it turns out. On the same day that the Vanity Fair article published, this appeared in the Fort-Worth Star Telegram:

Luis Castillo, president of LULAC council 22320 in Arlington said he is also frustrated and angry by the lack of inaction in Congress and President Trump’s tweets. (Fort-Worth Star Telegram, Aug. 6, 2019)

Earlier this week, the Post-Star of Glenn Falls, New York ran an article about a federal report on tick-borne diseases such as Lyme disease. The article originally had this line:

The seemingly lack of inaction by state and federal lawmakers has frustrated advocates like Holly Ahern, an associate professor of microbiology at SUNY Adirondack. (Post-Star, Aug. 4, 2019)

…but since then, that's been changed to read "lack of action."

Meanwhile, from across the pond, here's a press release that came out today from the Energy Industries Council, quoting EIC CEO Stuart Broadley about the potential effects of a "no-deal" Brexit:

On the negative side, more companies are getting frustrated by the lack of inaction around Brexit, damaging their growth prospects in new export markets and Europe in particular. (ADVFN, Aug. 8, 2019)

And here's a quote from last April about the late John McCain from his widow Cindy, relating to human trafficking:

"I know he'd be so upset over this because of the tenor, the lack of inaction on many members' parts, specifically on members of Congress. He would've been right in the mix saying we're going to work together, please let’s not fight. That's who he was." (NBC News, Apr. 12, 2019)

These examples tend to appear when people are registering disappointment about the lack of legislative progress on a hot-button issue, such as gun control. When it comes to discussing such emotionally charged issues, perhaps it's not surprising that people throw in an extra negation here and there.

(Hat tip, Annie Gottlieb.)


  1. Annie Gottlieb said,

    August 8, 2019 @ 4:08 pm

    Wow. What sleuthing. I had no idea this was a Thing, not just a one-time thing.

    This is a bit of a free association, but have you noticed that most people now say "The problem is, is that …" as if "problemis" were one word? (This has been going on for quite a while, but it persists.)

  2. Jerry Packard said,

    August 8, 2019 @ 4:55 pm

    The much heralded 'double is' construction.

  3. Ben Zimmer said,

    August 8, 2019 @ 5:09 pm

    @Annie: We've talked about the double "is" construction in several posts — though nothing recently, I don't think. See, e.g. my 2012 post, "Obama's 'is is'." There's also a good page on the topic from the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project here.

  4. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    August 8, 2019 @ 5:43 pm

    >"The seemingly lack of inaction"

    What, nothing about "the seemingly"?

  5. Gregory Kusnick said,

    August 8, 2019 @ 6:39 pm

    The Post-Star is seemingly still OK with "the seemingly lack".

  6. Orbeiter said,

    August 8, 2019 @ 7:36 pm

    @Annie Gottlieb: is it "problemis" that's sort of being treated as one word, or "is-that"?

    The word "that" is an overloaded word which can serve as a pronoun, conjunction, adjective or adverb; perhaps "is-that" is a formation that serves to clarify the way in which the word "that" is being used in this context (although of course without this being a deliberate linguistic decision on anyone's part).

    Otherwise, due to the pause that people include after "The problem _is_", the listener might anticipate an extension of the subsequent clause, as in "The problem is that I can't be in two places at once [causes me to…]").

  7. Orbeiter said,

    August 8, 2019 @ 7:54 pm

    "[…] expressed dismay at the lack of inaction in Congress."

    Whilst this is a solecism, it reminds me of the expression "I could care less", which has become acceptable to many people. In that case, I think "couldn't" has been replaced by "could" because "could" itself is a word that requires less effort to enunciate than "couldn't", hence it conveys a greater degree of indifference.

    In this case, my guess is that the error arises because "lack" and "inaction" both have a negative valence in this context. Congress is lacking, and it lacks because it is inactive.

    If this particular expression were to become common enough, I suppose one could regard it (like "could care less") as an idiom, where the word "lack" doesn't denote a quantitative deficiency but merely specifies that the inaction in question is a form of deficiency.

  8. ktschwarz said,

    August 8, 2019 @ 7:58 pm

    On the same day that the Vanity Fair article published, this appeared

    Is this a novel unaccusative use of "published", as opposed to the established "the article was published"? (Merriam-Webster doesn't cover this usage under "publish", so I assume it's novel and I'm not just having a recency illusion.) Also, is unaccusative the correct word, or should it be inchoative, middle-voice, or anticausal? Or are those all the same thing?

  9. Ben Zimmer said,

    August 8, 2019 @ 10:03 pm

    @ktschwarz: This usage of "publish" came up on the American Dialect Society mailing list last year. "Middle voice" or "mediopassive" are reasonable designations for this use of the verb, as discussed by Neal Whitman in the ADS-L thread (here, here, and here). Neal linked to a script he wrote for Grammar Girl on middle voice, where he observes:

    Once you start thinking about the middle voice in English, you’ll start to notice it everywhere. In fact, and this is a true story, in a single day while I was writing this script, I noticed two of them in a magazine article about the airline industry. One sentence said that deregulation “made it easier for new carriers to launch,” with the patient “new carriers” as its subject. The other said that the galleys were the places “where we enter and exit the plane, [and] where the drink carts stow.” The drink carts don’t stow themselves; the flight attendants stow them. Mere hours later, an air-conditioner technician told me as he wrote up the paperwork for a service call, “The bill will be sending this week.” A couple more hours later, I downloaded some updated software for a handheld device, and a message on my screen said, “Your file is downloading.” The instructions I was following said that once I selected the downloaded file, “Your software will install automatically.”

  10. Monscampus said,

    August 8, 2019 @ 10:46 pm

    Could this possibly be a Dragonism*? The software misinterpretating *lack of _an_ action* (not activity in Congress on the whole, but a response to this particular problem) as *inaction*? Just a thought. Regarding the lack of presidential tweets, it could also be considered as luck?

    *Dragon NaturallySpeaking

  11. Gregory Kusnick said,

    August 8, 2019 @ 11:35 pm

    "frustrated and angry by the lack of inaction in […] President Trump's tweets"

    That's an opinion many people share.

  12. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 9, 2019 @ 6:32 am

    If one took the political attitude captured in the maxim "where it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change" (said by the internet to have been first uttered in the House of Commons c. 1641 by the MP Lucius Cary, later Viscount Falkland), it would be perfectly coherent to decry "lack of inaction." But I suppose there are other good grounds to suppose that Sen. Murphy does not generally take that attitude.

  13. Chas Belov said,

    August 10, 2019 @ 3:02 am

    I can certify I use double "is."

  14. ktschwarz said,

    August 10, 2019 @ 2:47 pm

    @Ben Zimmer, thanks very much for the ADS-L link! I agree with the other posters there that the OED citations you gave aren't middle voice. It's also interesting, as Larry Horn pointed out, that middle voice "publish" is only episodic: you see "My book publishes next month" but not "*My stories publish every week", "*My stories publish worldwide", "*My stories publish to great acclaim". Or do you?

  15. Kendon said,

    August 10, 2019 @ 4:30 pm

    I wonder if the word "enact" might be playing a role. I notice that many of the cited examples are discussing legislation or legislators. It seems that "a lack of enacting [i.e., a particular piece of legislation]" could turn into "a lack of inaction."

  16. Luke said,

    August 10, 2019 @ 7:45 pm

    Newtown CT.

  17. Mr Punch said,

    August 11, 2019 @ 12:01 pm

    As I recall it, "the problem is is" was preceded by "the reason being is"

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