Annals of stacked negation

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Garrett Wollman writes:

Not sure if this really belongs in LL's misnegation files, but I found this sentence hard enough to parse (despite knowing exactly what the author meant) that I stumbled over it on a re-read:

"The really troubling thing," Zora says to the rain, "is that I can't convince myself I'm not in a life where knowing someone who can do that isn't purely a good thing."


The context here is that one of the other characters makes a rather creepy magical barrier around the people in the scene while waiting for medical attention after a disease outbreak.  So what the character is (I believe intended to be) saying is that they think it's entirely good to know someone who can do that, but they are troubled by the thought. 

She lost me at isn't.



  1. Rosie Redfield said,

    November 19, 2019 @ 3:00 pm

    Getting rid of ALL the negatives:

    I think I am in a life where knowing someone who can do that could be a bad thing.

  2. Rube said,

    November 19, 2019 @ 3:52 pm

    I think I get it, but wouldn't have without the context about the barrier being "creepy". I agree with Garrett: Zora would like to believe in a world where knowing this creep wasn't good, but can only come to the conclusion that, in fact, having a creep on your side is totally the way to go in this reality.

  3. Julian said,

    November 19, 2019 @ 4:05 pm

    After reading the rest of the post and the comments I still don't have a clue what the extract is trying to say.

  4. Francisco said,

    November 19, 2019 @ 4:13 pm

    "The really troubling thing," Zora says to the rain, "is that [I am pretty convinced that] I'm in a life where knowing someone who can do that is [to some degree a bad] thing."

  5. Philip Anderson said,

    November 19, 2019 @ 5:26 pm

    I agree with Francisco and Rosie; she can’t help thinking there could be a downside to being with this person.

  6. Andrew Usher said,

    November 19, 2019 @ 6:13 pm

    Yes, that's the only possible meaning – but there are too many negatives, and no one would actually say it that way. The author should have seen that.

    k_over_hbarc at

  7. Phillip Helbig said,

    November 20, 2019 @ 2:58 am

    I would not be opposed to the repeal of the prohibition. :-)

  8. Francois Lang said,

    November 20, 2019 @ 11:12 am

    My poor monkey brain can't process that sentence at all. No way.

  9. Gregory Kusnick said,

    November 20, 2019 @ 11:18 am

    The problem is not just the number of negatives; it's the weird counterfactual "I'm not in a life where…" Just leave that part out and say "I can't convince myself that knowing someone who can do that is purely a good thing."

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 20, 2019 @ 1:42 pm

    Since she's addressing the rain rather than some other primate with the limitations of a poor monkey brain, maybe that removes the pragmatic incentive to keep her syntax simple enough to avoid baffling the listener? You can tell the rain whatever you want, expressed in an arbitrarily complex fashion, and it won't react with a puzzled, confused, or unsympathetic facial expression or body language.

  11. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 20, 2019 @ 11:50 pm

    I'd say Zora wishes she were in a world where there's a bad side to knowing a creepy but useful person. But she thinks she's in a world where knowing someone like that is purely a good thing. (I may be agreeing with Prof. Liberman.)

    I don't know why Saunders didn't change "knowing" to "not knowing".

    J. W. Brewer: And if I talk to the wind, the wind does not hear. The wind cannot hear.

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 20, 2019 @ 11:51 pm

    For she read they.

  13. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 20, 2019 @ 11:52 pm

    Or, one more, I agree with Garrett and Rube.

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 21, 2019 @ 9:41 am

    I thought unbidden of the same song as Jerry Friedman, which I guess says something about our shared cultural heritage or frame of reference or something. I had thought there ought to be something similar but rain-connected but the only candidate songs I could speculatively remember turned out, when I used the internet to confirm the exact lyrics, to be not as close a fit as I had supposed they might be. Fortunately, the internet was then able to introduce me to a nicely obscure R&B number from '73 I'd never previously heard before (by a group I hadn't heard of before, on a label I hadn't heard of before) with the straightforward title "Talk to the Rain." It's a good example of what one thinks of as the smooth "Philly soul" sound of that era, even though per some more googling the act was from the Oranges (in North Jersey).

  15. outeast said,

    November 22, 2019 @ 1:01 pm

    Here's how I read the sentiment:
    It shouldn’t be a good thing to know someone like that.
    It especially shouldn’t be *purely* a good thing! I mean, very obviously, it’s not healthy.
    Life would need to be **really** screwed-up for *this* to be “purely a good thing”!
    I keep telling myself that my life isn’t *that* screwed up. I mean… it *can’t* be.
    But honestly…? I’m kinda scared that it is…

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