Election misnegation

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Here's another example for our long list of cases where smart people are either losing track of multiple negations, or applying a high-status form of negative concord in English. This one is from Jeremy Peters, "In Restricting Early Voting, the Right Sees a New ‘Center of Gravity’", NYT 3/19/2021:

“We also took a look at the election results, and we don’t believe that it was stolen. But that doesn’t mean we don’t think there aren’t things that can be improved,” said Jason Snead, the executive director of the Honest Elections Project.

As usual, most people find it hard to decide whether Mr. Snead said what he meant.

Ron Irving, who sent in the example, wrote:

If I delete the first two negations, I come up with, “But that means we think there aren’t things that can be improved.” Or, “But that doesn’t mean we think there are things that can be improved.” Clearly not what was intended.

So what Snead meant seems to be "But that doesn't mean we think there aren't things that can be improved", or maybe "But that doesn't mean we don't think there are things that can be improved.

Still, the quoted version is pretty easy to swallow, probably because negative concord is still an influence even for people who would never say (or write) any of these obviously non-standard examples.

The obligatory screenshot:


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    March 21, 2021 @ 1:43 pm

    I have to confess, it took several passes before I was able to see the error. To most people, I think, his meaning would be abundantly clear, even if what he actually said meant the diametric opposite.

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 21, 2021 @ 4:12 pm

    How would you most naturally make the same point in a colloquial variety/register where negative concord is perfectly acceptable?

    A. That don't mean we ain't thinkin' there ain't nuthin' that can be improved.
    B. That don't mean we're thinkin' there ain't nuthin' that can be improved.

    I *think* B is grammatical but A (intended to be a closer parallel to what Mr. Snead is quoted as having said) is an error in that variety, although not being a native speaker I can't quite be sure. But negative concord is its own grammatical thing with its own syntactic rules and you can't just negate things you wouldn't negate in prestige/standard English and expect to have it come out grammatical in a negative-concord-tolerant variety.

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 21, 2021 @ 4:29 pm

    On further reflection, there's a sort of testable prediction here. Assume two groups of misnegated complex sentences. Group A are those whose analogues in negative-concord-tolerant dialects would be okay (while still sounding formal enough in register or discourse context as to not be interpreted as intended to have been utterances in that dialect); group B are those whose analogues in negative-concord-tolerant dialects are ill-formed in those dialects just as they are in the prestige/standard variety. Are group A sentences more likely to be understood w/o the speaker consciously noting the issue than group B sentences, or does it work out about the same? This would enable you to distinguish between (a) exposure to and familiarity with the alternative grammar of other dialects and (b) a more generalized ability of the hearer's mental parser to infer the likely meaning of the sentence and ignore below the level of consciousness obvious production errors by the speaker that would lead to an improbable meaning if not ignored, whether or not the error is one that would be grammatical in a different dialect.

    You could also see if there were differences in the ratio of group A misnegations to group B misnegations between (i) speakers whose own idiolect lacks negative concord even in informal registers; and (ii) speakers whose own idiolect has negative concord and who have thus had to learn consciously how to code-switch into a no-negative-concord dialect when a formal register is appropriate.

  4. DaveK said,

    March 21, 2021 @ 7:04 pm

    If he had said “that doesn’t mean we don’t think there aren’t things that can’t be improved”’, would that have changed the intended meaning?
    Either way, it’s just saying “there may be things that could be improved” by the long route

  5. D.O. said,

    March 21, 2021 @ 9:45 pm

    DaveK, applying mathematical logic (that is to say, proposition calculus) "there aren’t things that can’t be improved" = "everything can be improved" which is not the same as "some things can be improved". Unless you think that the "thing" is elections as a whole. Obviously, "linguistic logic" neq "proposition calculus".

  6. Cervantes said,

    March 22, 2021 @ 7:14 am

    It's actually a Freudian slip. He knows he's full of crap.

  7. Viseguy said,

    March 22, 2021 @ 10:45 pm

    @Cervantes: Yes, indeed. The way to make elections more "honest" is to broaden access to the polls for all eligible voters. Maybe that's what Mr. Snead was trying to cover up in his avalanche of negatives.

    Oops, did I say "cover up"? I meant to say "emphasize".

  8. AntC said,

    March 23, 2021 @ 2:48 pm


    … requiring that ballots are mailed out no earlier than three weeks before the election and received by the time polls close on the day of.

    That dangling preposition "of" at the end seems abrupt. It elides "… day of the election". But can you do that, even in journalese?

    There's an idiom 'End of.' [discussion]. That's deliberately abrupt, dismissive, and usually intentionally offensive.

  9. Philip Taylor said,

    March 24, 2021 @ 4:05 am

    'of' -> 'thereof' would seem to solve that last problem, Ant.

  10. DaveK said,

    March 25, 2021 @ 9:02 pm

    Ant, “day of” with the object of the “of” left off is fairly common in American business contexts, not dismissively, just in an effort to sound brisk and efficient.
    I’ve never heard “end of” —is it British?

    (Yes, I know “object” is probably the wrong term but I can’t think of the right one)

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    March 27, 2021 @ 2:15 am

    Dave K — "I’ve never heard “end of” —is it British?". Probably. It feels very natural to me (British, 70+).

  12. Timo Kinnunen said,

    April 2, 2021 @ 4:11 am

    Something not meaning something doesn't mean it means the opposite. With that hopefully out of the way, let's remove those negatives:

    we don’t believe = we see no indications
    But that doesn’t mean = Despite this,
    we don’t think there aren’t = we think there are

    “We also took a look at the election results, and we see no indications that it was stolen. Despite this, we think there are things that can be improved”

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