Misnegation mailbag

« previous post | next post »

Here are some items sent in by readers over the past few weeks, to add to our list of misnegations. Larry Horn, on ADS-L:

"We'll see the fate of the coaching staff of Dallas…This cannot be understated, though, or overstated: whether it's his fault or not, Tony Romo is now 1-6 in win or go home games, either in Week 17 or the playoffs."

–ESPN SportsCenter anchor Steve Levy following another last-game elimination of the Dallas Cowboys

Maybe that should be the general strategy for all hypernegations:

"No head injury is too trivial to ignore, or to pay attention to."

"His problems can't be underestimated, or overestimated."

L.S. writes:

I came across this bewildering thicket of negations and thought you might enjoy it.

While it seems likely that multiple victimizations in a school setting would be newsworthy throughout this period, we cannot be entirely sure that the media weren’t particularly sensitized to the issue of school rampage shootings in the late 1990s, and therefore began covering these more assiduously (even when they did not involve fatalities) than had previously been true.

I think I've concluded it has the right number of negations, there are just too many of them.

CVD writes:

Before setting out to my grandmother's house for Christmas, I thought I'd pass along this sentence from the current issue of the New Yorker, which strikes me as a possible misnegation, or something close to it.  It's from Bill Wyman's piece called The Pale King, which reviews a new biography of Michael Jackson by Randall Sullivan.  The passage in question says, "In 1994, when the child-molestation furor was at its height, Jackson married Elvis Presley's daughter, Lisa Marie.  Sullivan's book does little to challenge the general impression that this was anything other than a ploy on Jackson's part to distract the public from his P.R. implosion."

My initial reaction is that Wyman could've described the "general impression" of Jackson's marriage to Lisa Marie in a couple of ways.  He could've said, "The general impression was that this was nothing but a ploy on Jackson's part . . . ."  Or he could've said, "Almost no one believed that this was anything other than a ploy on Jackson's part . . . ."  But to say, in effect, that "the general impression was that this was anything other than a ploy . . ." seems unidiomatic to me.  And I wonder if the (at least to me) unidiomatic nature of the sentence isn't attributable to the fact that it's preceded by the phrase "does little to challenge."  Thoughts?  (I took me several readings to decide what, if anything, struck was odd about this passage, and it's entirely possible that it's my reaction, not the passage, that's mistaken.)

AM sends in a sentence from to this story:

"It's actually really shocking that we haven't not found more islands."

That one is perfectly correct, of course. The interesting thing about it is that in the context of the story, it's completely clear what it means, showing that merely a couple of negations and a scalar predication in a quasi-modal context are not always enough to cause a problem.

LSB writes:

After implying that Colin Powell only endorsed Barack Obama because both men are black, John Sununu issued the following statement:

“Colin Powell is a friend and I respect the endorsement decision he made and I do not doubt that it was based on anything but his support of the president’s policies. Piers Morgan’s question was whether Colin Powell should leave the party, and I don’t think he should.”

Am I alone in feeling that “do not doubt that it was based on anything but his support of the president’s policies” has gone a negation or two too far?

MD writes:

I always enjoy a good misnegation, so I thought you might like this entry I noticed a while back in the international version of the NY Times. The online version contains this line:

"The government rushed to investigate the case thoroughly, eager to dispel any notion that it took lightly the killing of one of its citizens, …"

But the international print edition (below) must have been printed before an error was noticed.

"The government rushed to investigate the case thoroughly, eager to dispel any notion that it did not take lightly the killing of one of its citizens, …"

I read it a few times after my initial interpretation seemed wrong…


  1. Rubrick said,

    December 31, 2012 @ 7:13 pm

    The "I don't doubt that this was anything other than" construction is extraordinarily hard to notice anything wrong with (for me, anyway).

  2. Michael W said,

    December 31, 2012 @ 8:06 pm

    The first one on the list reminded me a bit of the exchange from the Sunday night game, in which Dallas was again the team in question.

    Late in the game, with Dallas trailing and performing poorly, one commentator was saying that it with injuries it would be difficult for them if they had to continue to the playoffs, and said "And so it looks like Dallas's season is mercifully coming to an end."

    To which the other commentator replied (probably in light of the fact that a Dallas player had just been injured), "It's mercilessly coming to an end."

    As for the New Yorker comment, I suppose 'unidiomatic' is fitting. It reads okay to split 'anything / other than a' in a way that 'nothing / but a ' would not work.

  3. Craig Sailor said,

    January 1, 2013 @ 10:55 am

    Someone may have posted this before, but every time I read a post about misnegation my mind goes to this quote from The Thick of It (a brilliant BBC Comedy):

    "I categorically did not knowingly not tell the truth, even though unknowingly, I might not have done." -Hugh Abbot

    Depending on the antecedent you select for the so-called British English 'do' ellipsis, this is either fine ([tell the truth]) or misnegation ([not tell the truth]). (I'm not a British English speaker, but every time I hear that quote, I recover the constituent-negated string first.)

  4. Andy Averill said,

    January 1, 2013 @ 2:05 pm

    Found an interesting one in Arnold Schwarzenegger's autobiography just this morning. He's describing how surprised he was by various things in America after he had just arrived from Austria:

    The sidewalks were cracked and sandy, with weeds growing alongside the buildings, and some stretches of sidewalk weren't even paved…. One thing I knew for sure: back in Graz, you would never find a sidewalk that was not only paved but also totally swept and immaculate.

    What I find interesting is that this a case of hyponegation — too few negative words — rather than the more common hypernegation. I'm guessing it was the "not only" that threw the copy editor off.

  5. CVD said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 8:03 am

    Although I described the New Yorker passage as unidiomatic, on further reflection I think it is an example of straightforward misnegation (rather than just idiosyncratic phrasing). From context, it's clear that the author is trying to say that the general impression is that Jackson's marriage *wasn't* anything other than a ploy. But he says that the general impression is that the marriage *was* anything other than a ploy. (The phrase "X was anything other than Y" is generally idiomatic, but its use is appropriate when the speaker wants to say that he may not know what X is, but he knows it's not Y.)

    The literal meaning of the New Yorker passage is: "people perceived Jackson's marriage to be something other than a ploy, and Sullivan's book doesn't change that impression." Which is the opposite of the passage's apparent intended meaning.

  6. David Walker said,

    January 10, 2013 @ 2:43 pm

    Someone said something recently with a lot of negations, and followed up with "I hope I got the negation polarity right". Good phrase, "negation polarity".

RSS feed for comments on this post