Nothing I don't think anybody can do about it

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By Dianne Gallagher, Catherine Shoichet and Madeline Holcombe, "680 undocumented workers arrested in record-setting immigration sweep on the first day of school", CNN 8/8/2019 [emphasis added]:

After immigration authorities rounded up hundreds of workers in a massive sweep at seven Mississippi food processing plants, friends and family members are desperately searching for answers.

A crowd waited outside a plant in Morton, Mississippi, on Thursday morning, hoping authorities would release their loved ones. Many had been by later in the afternoon.

Video footage from CNN affiliates and Facebook live showed children sobbing as they waited for word on what had happened to their parents. […]

Speaking to reporters outside a plant in Canton, Mississippi, Mayor William Truly Jr. said he was concerned about the impact the arrests would have on the local economy — and on the community.

"I recognize that ICE comes under the Department of Homeland Security, and this is an order of the United States. There's nothing I don't think anybody can do about it," he said. "But my main concern is now, what happens to the children?"

Some socio-political background: Sarah Fowler, "'We've been up all night.' Child Protection Services couldn't locate children", Mississippi Clarion Ledger 8/8/2019; Angela Stuesse, "The poultry industry recruited them. Now ICE raids are devastating their communities.", WaPo 8/9/2019.

Some linguistic background: "Not anybody who doesn't think it won't", 9/20/2013; "I wouldn't be surprised if few have yet to realize this", 6/1/2014; "Negative concord of the week", 6/25/2019.



  1. Annie Gottlieb said,

    August 9, 2019 @ 9:11 am

    He should've said "Nothing I don't think nobody can do about it."

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    August 9, 2019 @ 9:14 am

    I do appreciate that those making these illogical multiple-negative utterances are in a different league to the working-class child who says "I ain't got none" but they are, I would respectfully suggest, on the same continuum, and I therefore wonder why so much attention is being paid to them here. Most of us make errors in speech, some more egregious than others, but I am unclear exactly what purpose is served by continually recording them on Language Log.

    [(myl) Negative concord and its semi-presence semi-absence is a linguistically interesting phenomenon.]

  3. Posy said,

    August 9, 2019 @ 9:14 am

    Surely it's a case of the missing n-dashes.

    "There's nothing – I don't think – anybody can do about it."

    The case of the missing parents is another one :(

  4. F said,

    August 9, 2019 @ 9:22 am

    Hmm, this seems perfectly idiomatic to me:

    "There's nothing (I don't think!) anybody can do about it."

    I am used to hearing and producing "I don't think" to mean "I think this negative claim is true". As for the mental processes that cause this pattern, I make no claim.

  5. Jerry Packard said,

    August 9, 2019 @ 9:40 am

    Thank you, Philip. Though I suppose it is a phenomenon worth recording and perusing.

  6. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    August 9, 2019 @ 9:44 am

    @Posy — shouldn't those be M-dashes?

  7. Dick Margulis said,

    August 9, 2019 @ 10:38 am

    Michèle and Posy,

    It is entirely possible that your hypothesis is correct that dashes are missing. A dash is a symbol in the class we call punctuation marks. You can express a dash in a jotted note with a line drawn with a pen or pencil. You can express a dash on a typewriter with two hyphens. A British compositor will generally express a dash with a spaced en rule. An American typographer will generally express a dash with an em rule set solid. Semantically, all these expressions represent the same symbol.

  8. Jonathan Smith said,

    August 9, 2019 @ 11:00 am

    There's nothing anybody can do about it, I don't think. fine
    I don't think there's nothing anybody can do about it. wrong in intended meaning
    therefore the quoted
    There's nothing I don't think (/i) anybody can do about it.
    must be half-right.

  9. Philip Taylor said,

    August 9, 2019 @ 11:07 am

    For me, "There's nothing anybody can do about it, I don't think" not fine. It is an inversion of "I don't think there's nothing anybody can do about it", which should of course read "I don't think there's anything anybody can do about it".

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 9, 2019 @ 11:12 am

    I agree that the "I don't think" (however punctuated) is the bit that's causing the problem in the way it interacts with the rest. If you un-negate that bit, you could use negative concord to produce, e.g. "I think there ain't nothing nobody can do about it," which would (adjusted for register) be perfectly comprehensible and perfectly grammatical.

  11. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 9, 2019 @ 12:18 pm

    I stumbled on "A crowd waited outside a plant in Morton, Mississippi, on Thursday morning, hoping authorities would release their loved ones. Many had been by later in the afternoon."

    I'd want "Many had been released by later in the afternoon." Well, actually I'd want "by the afternoon" or "by the late afternoon", since we already know afternoon is later than morning.

  12. DaveK said,

    August 9, 2019 @ 8:45 pm

    So what’s the distinction between misnegation and the good old double negative?

  13. Michael Watts said,

    August 9, 2019 @ 9:31 pm

    Like Posy, F, and Jonathan Smith, I processed this as what I would have written as "There's nothing, I don't think, [that] anybody can do about it." The "I don't think" is a tag appearing in the middle of the sentence, and it's negative because of the sentence's negative semantics, despite the positive polarity of the verb proper.

  14. Michael Watts said,

    August 9, 2019 @ 9:34 pm

    (Contrast with a tagless equivalent, "There's nothing [that] I think [that] anybody can do about it.")

  15. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    August 9, 2019 @ 9:40 pm

    @Dick: "A dash is a symbol in the class we call punctuation marks."

    Really? You don't say?!

  16. Viseguy said,

    August 9, 2019 @ 11:45 pm

    My first instinct, like others', evidently, was to try to punctuate the sentence to produce a version of it that conveys the intended meaning. But I think this misses the point. The point (I think) is that we understand the intended meaning despite the misnegation. What I don't know, and what I'd like to know whether linguists know, or have theories about, is why this is so. My own (uninformed) theory is that it comes down to (a) the fact that any series of negations can be reduced to either a positive or a negative — so whether your brain actually analyzes the underlying Boolean statement or just flips a coin, you necessarily know that either X or Not-X was intended, and (b) the more likely of the two can (usually) be readily ascertained from the context (and, correlatively, one of the two possibilities is, often, a lot more likely, in context, than the other). What I don't understand is why this phenomenon, however explained, is "linguistically interesting". What does it say about the deep structure of language, or the language-brain connection, or … I don't even know how to put the question. I can only guess it goes to the (il)logic of language.

  17. D.O. said,

    August 10, 2019 @ 12:41 am

    DaveK: So what's the distinction between misnegation and the good old double negative?

    Misnegation here is a bit of misnomer. Negative concord is not an incorrect negation, but a speech pattern used correctly. The fact that some people deprecate such a pattern doesn't make it incorrect. Like cleaning teeth with a knife is not a case of mistaking a knife for a toothpick. I would also hazard an opinion that interpreting "I don't think" as a parenthetical doesn't remove it's negative concord status. It's just moves it into "educated people endorsed" status.

  18. bgermain said,

    August 10, 2019 @ 1:34 am

    Bless that mayor. If the Feds come down to raid a small town in a poor state, there's not much the mayor can do about it. Strategic! Meanwhile, I took 'I don't think' as a regionalism, and not an uncommon one. I am with F and Jonathan Smith on this. At most, someone humane stumbled, in a tragic and high-stress situation where the national media stuck a mike in his face. "ICE raided; now these stranded helpless children are sobbing. Thoughts? " The way we make sense out of mis-sense and the limits of our ability to do it are interesting, but this example doesn't su
    pport a whole ton of analysis, I don't think.

  19. D.O. said,

    August 10, 2019 @ 3:26 am

    Mayor Truly must have a great time signing his correspondence "Yours Truly"

  20. Dick Margulis said,

    August 10, 2019 @ 7:38 am

    @Michèle: I do say. And my point is that both of you made a categorical error. An en dash and an em dash are representations of the same symbol. They are not different punctuation marks; they are different glyphs.

  21. Rose Eneri said,

    August 10, 2019 @ 8:30 am

    "There's nothing I don't think anybody can do about it." This statement was very poorly transcribed and demonstrates the importance of punctuation in conveying meaning accurately. I'm sure if we heard the speaker we would be able to "hear" the dashes/parentheses surrounding "I don't think" in his voice. It is the responsibility of the transcriber to accurately convey the prosody.

    Yet again, where are the editors? Does anybody actually read anything before it is printed/posted?

  22. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    August 10, 2019 @ 9:18 am

    @Dick: yes, obviously I need someone to explain the concept of punctuation marks to me, as I've never heard of them before. /s

    Seriously, dude? This is textbook mansplaining. Do you really think people who know that n- and m-dashes exist DON'T know that they are *checks notes* "punctuation marks"??

    But to your point: tell that to the AP Style Guide, which recommends different uses for the various "different glyphs" of the "same symbol",

  23. Philip Taylor said,

    August 10, 2019 @ 11:40 am

    An en-dash (U+2013), an em-dash (U+2014), a minus sign (U+2212) and a hyphen (U+002D, U+2010): four distinct symbols, which are nonetheless easily confused since an en-dash in one font may be indistinguishable from an em-dash in another, and a hyphen in one font may be indistinguishable from a minus sign in another. Each has its uses, and usage may vary with accepted practice (e.g., in different countries). Each font will have default side-bearings for each glyph, but of course the typesetter (human, not machine) may elect to over-ride these in particular circumstances. I am British, and use each as follows : en-dash, to set off a number range (e.g., 1939–45); em-dash (usually spaced), to set off parentheticals ("John — a Fellow of the Society of Master Typographers — decide to codify once and for all the British conventions for the use of dashes"); minus sign, to indicate subtraction ($c=a−b$); hyphen, to set off the individual elements of a hyphenated word (co‐ordinate, co‐worker). Other dashes exist, and other uses are, of course, possible. See, e.g., Korpela, J. 2000–2011.

  24. Jerry Packard said,

    August 10, 2019 @ 2:05 pm

    In response to Viseguy’s (Vy not a chicken?) entreaty about the logic of language, I would say that the phenomenon of misnegation suggests, as I hinted in a post a week or two ago, that our understanding of language and the world (‘semantics’) proceeds along with only minimal input from the coding information we get from written and spoken input. If the code were Basic or C, the misnegations would be interpreted just as they are coded every time. The fact that they are missed 99.999% of the time suggests that Fodor’s Language of Thought is the real driver here, and that Chomsky’s Universal Grammar is but an observer on the side.

  25. Viseguy said,

    August 10, 2019 @ 6:49 pm

    @Jerry Packard: Because a chicken von't come down vhen you say the secret vord. And thanks — I'll pack the Fodor's the next time I travel.

  26. Dick Margulis said,

    August 10, 2019 @ 7:48 pm

    @Michèle: You're continuing with the same error. An en dash or an em dash is not a punctuation mark. A dash is a punctuation mark. An en dash (also called an en rule) or an em dash (also called an em rule) is NOT a punctuation mark. It is an graphical representation of a punctuation mark. And an en rule and an en rule are two among multiple representations of the same punctuation mark, which is a level of abstraction above the physical representation.

    This is similar to the situation with apostrophes and quotation marks. No one disputes that "these" and “these” both represent quotation marks, even if they look different. And yet they are different glyphs. The logic is the same.

  27. Dick Margulis said,

    August 10, 2019 @ 7:49 pm

    Aargh. My typographer's quotes got converted to straight quotes. So the demonstration didn't work. Oh well.

  28. Jonathan Smith said,

    August 10, 2019 @ 10:49 pm

    @Dick Margulis Seems like your point is valid only as concerns marking breaks / setting off parentheticals is concerned… given the range of conventional contrastive usages in printed text, en- and em-dash, etc., unlike curly vs. straight quotes, are de facto different punctuation marks in that context, no?

    On topic, I don't think this kind of "parenthetical" generally involves pause; rather, it is syntactically incorporated (cf. "This is the best sushi I think I've ever had"), etc. I don't know if this phenomenon has a name or standard treatment in syntax or pragmatics.

  29. BZ said,

    August 13, 2019 @ 3:43 pm

    "There's nothing (I don't think) anybody can do about it" however you punctuate it, is something I can see myself saying. In fact, "There's nothing (I think) anybody can do about it" sounds wrong to me no matter how you punctuate it. It'd have to be "I think there's nothing anybody can do about it". And even that is iffy. If I had to remove the alleged double negative, I'd probably say "I don't think there's anything anybody can do about it".

  30. Anne Cutler said,

    August 14, 2019 @ 1:17 am

    Parenthetical, dashes missing, brackets missing – in other words, spoken language has prosody and just writing down the spoken words doesn't fully capture the spoken realisation. Even with every type of punctuation mark.

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