Little doubt it wouldn't

« previous post | next post »

Some time ago, R.I. sent in this quotation from Golf World, 6/3/2013:

Because Irwin is the oldest U.S. Open champion—45 when he defeated Mike Donald in a playoff at Medinah CC in 1990—and won his last PGA Tour event, the 1994 MCI Heritage, when he was 48, there seemed little doubt his skill set wouldn't make him a formidable senior-tour member if he committed to the 50-and-over circuit.

You probably think that this is going to be about misnegation, and the tendency for negative concord to sneak back into standard English after having been chased out a half a millennium ago. That's what I thought too, but along the way to YAMP (Yet Another Misnegation Post) I was waylaid by a curious observation.

I began collecting "little doubt (that) S" sentences, to see how many of them had negative complements, and how often there might be potential ambiguity or confusion about presence or absence of negation in the complement. But as I collected a set of relevant examples from COCA, I noticed something else.

There happen to be 18 examples of the pattern "little doubt that he", and also 18 examples of the pattern "little doubt he". (In one of the second set, "he" starts a relative clause with "doubt" as the head, rather than a sentential complement, but never mind that…)

Here are the examples — and I think you'll easily notice the same thing that I did. Set #1:

President Bush can celebrate the U.N. Security Council's unanimous vote this week, and there is little doubt that he will soon celebrate overwhelming congressional approval of his $87 billion request for Iraq and Afghanistan.
The colonel had no doubt that his vantage point was atop one of the picnic tables on the deck and that the man was Carbonell; and, although it was difficult to credit, he had very little doubt that he was seeing this from the perspective of an indigo lizard with orange eyes.
The pope is a great bookman and there is little doubt that he had all of these books in his possession at one time or another, and there is nothing more likely than that he still does.
But anyone watching him stroll into the spotlight Friday night, alongside President Bush and the International Olympic Committee president, Jacques Rogge, could have little doubt that he aspires to stay in it.
Mr. Cuomo describes Mr. Clinton as a " good friend, " and leaves little doubt that he intends to ride on Mr. Clinton's residual coattails in the state that the former president now calls home.
But Rosen has little doubt that he would turn nasty if anyone threatened her.
I had little doubt that he was patching into Samson's external mike to eavesdrop on their conversation, if it could be called that.
Stalin went on to harp on the same general scheme on virtually every occasion on which he and his German chieftains met over the next few years, so there can be little doubt that he was fully invested in his expectations.
Given Matthew's ease of access to the works of Hugh of St. Victor and his use of Diceto's signa, there can be little doubt that he was upping a rich source of ideas for ways to make his manuscripts work.
Those who know Master P as a businessman said they had little doubt that he would accomplish whatever he set his mind to.
Alvin Johnson's expansive vision was very much in keeping with his overall outlook; but there is little doubt that he also envisioned this new undertaking as an opportunity to enhance the prestige of his ailing institution, as well as to find a remedy for its perennial financial woes.
Although his own personal experience with the powers that were less than satisfactory, at least initially, there is little doubt that he began to consort with a group of intellectual peers about this time.
Yet, at age 38, after more than 20 years at the forge, there's little doubt that he has.
Although Glendening says race played no role in the selection, there's little doubt that he has benefited politically from the symbolism of appointing such a high-profile black man in a county that's become majority black in the last decade.
I think — I think there is little doubt that he still has quite a few troops who are loyal to him.
Morton himself left little doubt that he thought highly of the man.
Should they continue to fight the case before Judge Sweigert, who had left little doubt that he considered the Sierra Club's objections to the development sound and well-grounded in the law and in federal regulations, and then appeal if necessary?
Scholars will long debate Ronald Reagan's impact on America but there can be little doubt that he had an impact on presidential scholarship.

And set #2:

Syrian president Gamal Mustafa in Damascus was silent thus far, but Farooq had little doubt he, too, would soon cave.
But when I read "Futurist Cookbook," I have little doubt he was on to something.
And while McCain has a reputation as a debt hawk, there's little doubt he would have taken an active approach to rescuing the sinking economy, even it if would have greatly increased the deficit.
There is little doubt he would have viewed the tactics employed by modern Middle Eastern terrorist groups – particularly their targeting of unarmed civilians – with incomprehension and disdain.
There is little doubt he was a savvy and courageous commander.
But there is little doubt he will also give more authority to the state, remaking some ministries and creating others.
There seemed little doubt he would work things out.
There is little doubt he will make his 28th consecutive start Saturday against Tulsa (3-3, 2-1 Conference USA), but Syptak reluctantly conceded the losses are taking their toll.
He looked to be about fifty, with refined features and an austere expression that left little doubt he was unamused by their presence here.
But there's little doubt he's a troubled one.
As the organ blares out a snappy recessional and the night's amens begin to fade, Forbes leaves little doubt he considers a reborn Sanders the real deal.
Suharto has left little doubt he will run for a seventh five-year term.
What little doubt he had about the break-in at the apartment vanished.
You have little doubt he has always done just that.
There is little doubt he has learned something from his prison experience.
Robinson himself is reluctant to take credit for President Clinton's change of heart, but there is little doubt he was the catalyst, and even those who applaud the President's new policy question the way it was made.
"Oh, there's little doubt he was trying," Adam replied.

In the first set, the mean length of the sentences is 31.5 words, and the median is 34 words. In the second set, the mean sentence length is 18.4 words, and the median is 14 words.

I've run out of time this morning, so I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to verify that the distinction is a ("statistically") significant one, and to explore whether something similar holds for other environments in which "that" is optional, and to speculate about the directions of the causal arrows (if any) among the various overt and hidden variables in this situation.

I'll just close with this plot from my presentation at the Diachronic Syntax Workshop a week ago, and invite you to consider it in juxtaposition with the facts about trends in sentence length:


  1. Lauren said,

    July 9, 2013 @ 8:38 am

    This doesn't seem that surprising, given that a tendency to omit "that" wherever possible is strongly related to a more general tendency towards briefness and cutting out any word which isn't necessary for communication of the main point.

    I'd imagine it might also be correlated to a more casual mode of speech, as well, which would lend itself to shorter sentences. That one might not be supported by the data, though (I haven't looked).

  2. Julia said,

    July 9, 2013 @ 10:13 am

    Syntactically, it works the same way in both sets; "little doubt" introduces a clause whether the connecting "that" is used or merely implied. The one exception I see is "What little doubt he had about the break-in at the apartment vanished." What we have here is a verb phrase embedded in the noun phrase, which is so completely different that it does not seem to belong with the other examples.

    [(myl) As I wrote, "In one of the second set, "he" starts a relative clause with "doubt" as the head, rather than a sentential complement, but never mind that…"]

  3. James said,

    July 9, 2013 @ 11:48 am

    Sounds right, Lauren. I wonder if the 'that'-droppers are in fact self-consciously 'omitting needless words'.

  4. Aaron Toivo said,

    July 9, 2013 @ 11:54 am

    Perhaps "that"-dropping is more frequent among those who try to "omit needless words"? It would be quite a low-hanging fruit when applying that advice. It might be interesting to check whether the second set displays a tendency to any other such mediocre-to-bad "rules" of good writing.

  5. KevinM said,

    July 9, 2013 @ 11:57 am

    No doubt it is.

  6. Dave Orr said,

    July 9, 2013 @ 12:28 pm

    I assisted Tom Wasow and Florian Jaeger in an investigation of "that" deletion a few years back. Here were the major factors we found that influenced whether "that" got deleted:

    DIST: Distance of NSRC from beginning of sentence
    a. These are the things [I can prepare for _].

    NP: Length of NP (up to head noun) modified by NSRC
    b. These are the things in my life [I can prepare for _].

    INT: Intervening material before beginning of NSRC
    c. These are the things in my life [I can prepare for _].

    DEP-to-GAP: Dependency from beginning of NSRC to gap
    d. These are the things in my life [I can prepare for _].

    POST-GAP: Material in the NSRC following the gap
    e. […] the things in my life [I can prepare for _ over and over].

    Basically, the more complex the sentence, the more often "that" appears. If the intervening material, for instance, is long enough, then "that" is nearly obligatory.

    And finally, we looked at how predictable the relative clause was. If you have a noun that's semantically light, like "thing", or vague, like "movie", or are otherwise composing a sentence that is likely to have a relative clause, then the "that" is likely to be deleted. If the relative clause is showing up in a surprising place, then the "that" is rarely deleted.

  7. Ben Hemmens said,

    July 9, 2013 @ 1:05 pm

    I at any rate would tend to use the "that" in longer sentences; I've done so consciously for some time.

  8. Laura said,

    July 10, 2013 @ 4:24 am

    Not specially relevant here, perhaps, but in response to Aaron Toivo, there is some writing advice (can't remember whose) that specifically says to go through your writing and see how many instances of 'that' can be omitted, and that you're likely to find a lot of unnecessary ones. That would give a different prediction from what Lauren suggests, though, as if people did follow this advice it would be in carefully edited, formal writing.

RSS feed for comments on this post