Ambiguous triple negative

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This morning, I read the following sentence on a large list to which I belong:

"Apparently no one that hasn't been vaccinated doesn't want to live.

I read it over several times and thought about it for quite a while, but am still not sure that I understand what the author of the sentence really meant.  Can anyone state the intent of the sentence more clearly and unambiguously?

Another sympathetic member of the list, who was trying to explain things in a kindly fashion, wrote:

Some people acquired immunity naturally.  I.e., they got the disease and were one of the 99.x% of people that survived so now they have antibodies.

I think the original author is saying that even all those people who haven't been vaccinated still want to live.


Selected readings


  1. Russell said,

    August 11, 2021 @ 6:54 am

    How about "None of the unvaccinated seem to have avoided the vaccine because they don't want to be alive."

  2. J. said,

    August 11, 2021 @ 7:11 am

    (Despite what one might think or have been told about their intentions), people who haven't been vaccinated want to live.

  3. Marnie said,

    August 11, 2021 @ 7:32 am

    But suicidal people exist, and almost certainly not all of those suicidal people are vaccinated. In fact if you don't want to live, that probably makes you less likely to think about protecting yourself from diseases. My guess at what the statement might be intended to mean: When people haven't been vaccinated, their reason for that is "apparently" in general not that they don't want to live. That is, in the cases where their motivation is apparent, not wanting to live isn't a motive for not getting a vaccine. That is a reasonable perception, but "apparently no one" is absurdly overstated. Sequence of quantors/qualifiers matters.

  4. Michael Watts said,

    August 11, 2021 @ 7:36 am

    The sentence states literally that, considering the group of people who have not been vaccinated, none of them are suicidal.

    But without the conversational context, we can't know what the author of the sentence meant to say. We can only know what they did say. The sentence contains an explicit appeal to prior context, in the word "apparently" — what evidence was being referred to? Knowing the referent of "apparently" will tell us more about what the sentence was intended to mean than knowing the wording of the sentence will.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    August 11, 2021 @ 8:00 am

    For the record, this is the exact sentence with which the correspondent began his post. There was no other context or explanation than the general discussion in society now over whether SARS-CoV-2 injections should be mandated.

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 11, 2021 @ 8:09 am

    Granted that this was the opening sentence, the subsequent sentences might still clarify the meaning, and in particular whether it was or wasn't a misnegation. The "apparently," for example, might make sense (although other adverbs might be better) if the writer were going on to argue that the actual observed behavior of the group is inconsistent with their stated goals, which is certainly one type of inconsistency to which human beings have been known to be prone.

    But it is equally plausible that the subsequent sentences might make it more likely that the sentence as framed contains a misnegation.

  7. James said,

    August 11, 2021 @ 8:22 am

    I'm with Michael Watts. The sentence says that (apparently) all the unvaccinated people want to live, and that *could* be what the speaker intended. It's kind of plausible that s/he over-negated, and really meant to say that unvaccinated people (apparently) do *not* want to live… But we're just guessing at what the speaker was thinking.

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 11, 2021 @ 8:26 am

    On further reflection, another way in which "apparently" may be key to the meaning is that "apparently" has several different possible connotations, a "literal" one which means something like "X seems to be the case although it remains possible that it isn't" and a "sarcastic" one which means something like "some relevant person has asserted that X is the case but I don't really believe them and you shouldn't either."

    A common example of the latter usage might be when a celebrity accused of scandalous behavior gives a press conference saying they did nothing wrong and that it was all just a big misunderstanding, and snarky internet commentators say "apparently, it was all a big misunderstanding" to signal skepticism about the credibility of the celebrity's explanation. But absent tone of voice clues, you need context to assess which usage of "apparently" is more plausible. That sort of snarky internet register may also be prone to rhetorical hyperbole, which is a different label for what a prior commentator called the "absurdly overstated" nature of a literal parse.

  9. Jerry Packard said,

    August 11, 2021 @ 8:26 am

    My guess: Anyone that hasn't been vaccinated doesn't want to live.

  10. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    August 11, 2021 @ 8:47 am

    In Practical English Usage section 370.7, Michael Swan writes:
    In informal standard spoken English, a negative verb (without a negative meaning) is sometimes used after expressions of doubt or uncertainty, such as apprently:

    "I shouldn't be surprised if they didn't get married soon". (= . . . if they did soon.)

  11. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    August 11, 2021 @ 8:48 am

    None of those unvaccinated wants to die

  12. Michael Watts said,

    August 11, 2021 @ 9:01 am

    But suicidal people exist, and almost certainly not all of those suicidal people are vaccinated.

    Apparently not. ;D

  13. unekdoud said,

    August 11, 2021 @ 9:30 am

    "Apparently no one who doesn't want to live hasn't been vaccinated."
    which (I'm 99.x% sure) has an overnegation in the middle, or

    "Apparently all unvaccinated want to live."
    which sounds fine but brings along its weird contrapositive twin

    "Apparently all who don't want to live are vaccinated."

  14. Duncan said,

    August 11, 2021 @ 9:44 am

    For those who may have missed the story back in May, this is the context the author may have had in mind:

    There's apparently three kids in the family. Mom got the vaccine as did two of the kids, but Dad's convinced it's going to kill them, and offers 2000 dollars to the last kid even though he knows she isn't interested in the money, because he literally expects the others will be dead within the year due to the vaccine, and he's desperate to have at least /one/ kid survive with him due to not taking it. And I can well imagine that he's draining his bank account and possibly asked to borrow from a friend in ordered to come up with that 2000 dollars, too. If he had a house he could mortgage, he'd probably be doing that too and offering 20K or 50K dollars or whatever, because he's *that* convinced! What parent /wouldn't/ if they thought they'd just lost their spouse and two of their three kids, if it meant saving the third? What's an ultimately empty house compared to that?

    (FWIW she posted an update video later saying she got the vaccine.)

    Apparently was a tiktok video, tho I just saw the news coverage subsequent to it going viral but that was enough, I didn't click thru to the video. Dad certainly want to live (and keep his family alive too)! Unfortunately he had what I expect most here would call a potentially fatal concept of what's going to keep them living!

    In the immediate aftermath of having my emotions and reason buffeted about by something like that I can certainly imagine being topsy-turvy enough to post a triple-negative sentence such as the one discussed here to a discussion list…

  15. Michael Watts said,

    August 11, 2021 @ 10:48 am

    On Duncan's theory, the sentence should have said "apparently, not everyone that hasn't been vaccinated [is doing it because he] doesn't want to live".

    The problem there isn't the number of negations, it's that the speaker has hypothetically confused "not everyone" with "no one".

  16. John From Cincinnati said,

    August 11, 2021 @ 12:27 pm

    I'll go out on a limb here and plead that the sentence is perfectly formed idiomatic English, that it does not suffer from over-negation, and that it expresses an entirely reasonable opinion. I'll go further. The responders who are counting negations or making distinctions between no one and not everyone are ovethinking things. You want ambiguity? Go and analyze "You can't overthink things too much".

    I call as my witness the following ad jingle that is stuck in my memory from a long time ago.

    Everybody doesn't like something, but nobody doesn't like Sara Lee.
    — Everybody has something they dislike, but nobody dislikes Sara Lee.
    — Everybody likes Sara Lee.

    Analysis of the posted sentence.

    No one that hasn't been vaccinated …
    — No one, out of the set of people who haven't been vaccinated …

    No one … doesn't want to live.
    — Well-formed and unambiguous. (At least in my opinion)

    No one that hasn't been vaccinated doesn't want to live.
    — No one, out of the set of people who haven't been vaccinated, desires not to live.
    — (Perhaps in response to, Geez, are these anti-vaxers suicidal?)

    Mind you, it is perfectly true that there are suicidal people in this world, and it is reasonable to imagine that there are anti-vaxers who are themselves suicidal. In that sense the posted sentence reads as harmless hyperbole, on the order of something like "Nobody believes that" or "Everybody knows".

  17. Annie Gottlieb said,

    August 11, 2021 @ 1:56 pm

    I understood it the way you did.

    Possibly another element that factors into it is the stories about the unvaccinated-by-choice whose last words before being intubated express regret for their choice.

  18. Kate Christensen said,

    August 11, 2021 @ 2:01 pm

    I am recovering from total reverse shoulder replacement and am thoroughly enjoying reading all your comments

    I believe, as said above, those who are not vaccinated do want to live.

    And I have been vaccinated (Pfizer).


  19. Terry K. said,

    August 11, 2021 @ 3:45 pm

    I read it as conveying that it's not a lack of desire to live that causes people to not get vaccinated.

    So, the number of negatives is correct (in this understanding), but taking it ultra-literally and reading it as saying there's no suicidal unvaccinated people would not be correct. (And it would not have occurred to me to read it that way before reading Michael Watts' comment. As John From Cincinnati says, harmless hyperbole.)

  20. VVOV said,

    August 11, 2021 @ 10:15 pm

    I agree with those interpreting the sentence as “people who haven’t been vaccinated DO want to live [despite having chosen non-vaccination, which endangers their life]”.

    As a healthcare worker, when I read the sentence I imagined that the speaker is voicing frustration with how the unvaccinated reject the healthcare establishment’s recommendations to receive the vaccine, yet go to the hospital seeking care and consuming healthcare resources when they become sick with COVID.

  21. WGJ said,

    August 12, 2021 @ 2:46 am

    Among the vaccinated, apparently no one wants to cease living.

  22. Andreas Johansson said,

    August 12, 2021 @ 6:44 am

    "Apparently everyone who is unvaccinated wants to live."

    While it's undoubtedly false that there's nobody who is unvaccinated and wants to die, it's entirely possible it appears so to the writer.

  23. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 12, 2021 @ 9:27 am

    One takeaway here is that this is *not* parallel to what Mark Liberman has called the "No wug is too dax to be zonged" genre of misnegation. In that situation, the "literal" parse is typically so highly unlikely to be intended that we assume it must have been an inadvertent misnegation and (often without consciously being aware of it) substitute a parse that fixes that problem and makes the statement something that makes sense to have been intended in context.

    Here, by contrast, both the literal parse (making allowances for harmless hyperbole) and the let's-treat-it-as-a-misnegation parse seem plausible enough to have been intended that we really can't choose between them without more context.

  24. unekdoud said,

    August 12, 2021 @ 10:54 am

    You can defuse the hyperbole (and my propositional logic nightmare) by replacing "no one" with "not many", which roughly simplifies to "Seems unvaxxed are rarely suicidal".

    For the demisnegated (=hypercorrected?) parse, replace "rarely" with "often".

  25. Andrew Usher said,

    August 12, 2021 @ 6:16 pm

    No context was supplied for the sentence, so I can not suppose what its writer meant to argue. However, the polarity intended is still clear, as no one would ever say the opposite except in sarcasm, which could have been used by substituting 'everyone' for 'no one'. The literal meaning is correct here, however it is not an idiomatic way of saying it, which is surely what struck Victor Mair, and also me.

    (The hyperbole of saying there are _no_ cases, which can't be literally true, is not a problem; general statements are made like that all the time, and excluding a small number of exceptions from such hardly even seems hyperbolic.)

    The clearest way to state it would be the straightforward 'People … still want to live.', without any negatives at all (litotes does not really work here).

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo dot com

  26. James K. Lowden said,

    August 24, 2021 @ 10:35 am

    In Boolean logic, (not X and not Y) = X and Y. In formal logic, I believe that’s the contrapositive.

    The AND operation is commutative, too: X and Y and Z = Y and X and Z.

    So the logical equivalent is: of those who are not vaccinated, all want to live.

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