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In reading texts from the earliest times of Chinese writing up to the present, and at all social levels and linguistic registers, I have noticed a curious phenomenon.  Namely, often an overtly negative particle or term will have no privative or prohibitive force, but is simply there for rhythmic, clitic, or rhetorical function.

Naturally, since negation is normally marked and unmistakable in its purpose, when its unaffirmative function is lost / absent / missing, interpreting the intended meaning of such a statement or utterance can be challenging.

I was prompted to contemplate this curious phenomenon when I was writing a message to my brother in Chinese, and realized that "guǎn tā 管它" and "béng guǎn tā 甭管它" mean the same thing: — "forget about it; leave it alone; don't worry about it"! — with or without the negative word being overtly present.

While "béng guǎn tā 甭管它" means "forget about it" / "leave it alone" / "don't worry about it", "guǎn tā 管它…" / guǎn tā ne 管它呢!" means exactly the same thing (maybe even to a stronger degree) in a tone of making a rhetorical statement with a particular flair that has subtle implications amounting almost to the English catchphrase "whatever", which means a lot of different things depending on the tone with which it is uttered.

Since this has been a bit of a bone of contention here at Language Log — whether intonation matters in Sinitic languages (I'm on the side of those who hold that it does [see the "Selected readings" below]) — it needs to be pointed out in this instance that when one says "guǎn tā 管它" ("pay attention to it") without the explicit negative particle present but with a clear prohibitory intention, one does so with a special intonation that evokes negation without actually invoking it.

I can think of at least a dozen different ways to say "forget about it" / "leave it alone" / "don't worry about it" in Mandarin, with or without the negative and with or without the subject / object of the verb: 

bié guǎn (tā) 別管(它)
bùyào guǎn (tā) 不要管(它)
bùyòng guǎn (tā) 不用管(它)
guǎn tā 管它
guǎn tā ne 管它呢
nǐ guǎn tā 你管它

Actually, all of the examples cited above are coming at the issue with which I began this post from the opposite side, viz., when the negative is present but has no negative meaning.  In the above examples, I was exploring cases where an explicit negative may not be present, yet the utterance still carries negative meaning.

In the following examples, I will adduce instances where a negative word is present but conveys no negative force:

hǎo róngyì 好容易 / hǎobù róngyì 好不容易 ("with great difficulty")

fēicháng liǎo dé 非常了得 / fēicháng liǎo bùdé 非常了不得 ("… is extraordinary / amazing")

qì sǐ tā 气死他 / qì bù sǐ tā 气不死他 (“piss him off”)

pà shì bìngle ba 怕是病了吧 / pà bùshì bìngle ba 怕不是病了吧 ("I am afraid he is ill")

This phenomenon of the presence or absence of an explicit negative word not being the sole determining factor in expressing linguistic affirmation or negation in an utterance or sentence is widespread in Sinitic languages, but it also exists in English:

I wonder if it might be possible… = I wonder if it might not be possible…

Since negation is such an elusive property even in common discourse, it is no wonder that we encounter such a profusion of misnegation, one of the chief bugaboos here at Language Log.

Selected readings


[thanks to Zihan Guo and Yijie Zhang]


  1. Vance Koven said,

    February 19, 2022 @ 10:59 am

    This suggests the English (American?) phrase "I could care less" to mean "I couldn't care less."

  2. Mark Hansell said,

    February 19, 2022 @ 1:09 pm

    Another Mandarin one is 差点(没) chàdiǎn(méi), as in 差点死了 chàdiǎnsǐle 'almost died' and 差点没死 chàdiǎnméisǐ 'almost (didn't) die'. To makes sense of this, I always explained the latter one to myself as "almost died, but didn't".

  3. Jim Unger said,

    February 19, 2022 @ 1:36 pm

    This reminds me of a lecture I heard Paul Postal deliver in late 2000 about roughly synonymous English sentences such as "He (knows / doesn't know) squat about economics." Such pairs resemble "I can't help {thinking / but think) that he's up to something," but in that case, a double negative is accepted (by most speakers) as a single negative; in the "squat" case, a single negative can apparently be dropped without much effect on the interpretation of "squat." Very perplexing!

  4. Andrew Usher said,

    February 19, 2022 @ 2:22 pm

    It should be seen that all these examples, both English and Chinese, are actually affirmative, or at least interpretable as such. No one has given a true negative (i.e. denying some assertion) expressible without a negative word.

    Is "I can't help but think" really a double negative? I don't think so; it's just a redundancy as the 'but' is doing nothing and can be dropped. It's not a negative word there; take its synonym (in that sense) 'only' and we say "I can only think", which has no negatives. It's actually 'help' that serves as the second negative word; so both "I can't help thinking" and "I can't help but think" have two negatives making a positive, which is fine – yet I agree the latter phrasing is poor and seems confused.

    k_over_hbarc at

  5. M. Paul Shore said,

    February 19, 2022 @ 7:27 pm

    Has any linguist so far produced a thoroughly convincing explanation of the “could care less” phenomenon? (My apologies if that’s already been done and I’m just not aware of it.) I’ve sometimes wondered whether in the end the best explanation will turn out to be not unifactorial but multifactorial, with one of the factors being that the “-n’t” ending has become so phonetically eroded that pairs of words like “could” and “couldn’t” are almost indistinguishable in speech (even though the desired affirmative/negative distinction can often be assisted, at least in the speech of speakers of the more precise sort, by prosodic clues in the respective surrounding sentences). It seems to me that foreign-language examples, such as the above ones of seemingly-necessary negative particles or terms being absent from certain set Mandarin phrases, should be able to contribute valuable insights towards an eventual ideal multifactorial explanation of “could care less”.

    As for the examples of unnecessary negative particles or terms in certain set phrases in Mandarin, they strike me as closely comparable to those fixed situations in various varieties of French—often including highly formal and traditional French—where the ‘ne’ pléonastique is ordinarily used and may even be strenuously required.

  6. Terpomo said,

    February 19, 2022 @ 8:07 pm

    For a classical example there's 無念爾祖, for which traditional commentaries simply declare somewhat bafflingly 無念,念也. Japanese Kanbun tradition reads this as 爾の祖を念ふこと無からんや 'shall you not think of' i.e. an unmarked question (not entirely unheard of). I've heard some scholars suggest that it was simply a sesquisyllabic prefix that became a separate syllable for metrical reasons. (If that's the case the resemblance to μνάομαι is curious but probably coincidental.)

  7. David C. said,

    February 19, 2022 @ 8:33 pm

    I can see the point with the other examples in the OP, but I'm curious why 好容易 and 好不容易 were not considered to be contrasting? The negative sense comes from the fact that it's not easy – it can be translated as difficult, but that doesn't remove the negation in the original.

    In French, it was "ne" that started life as the negation particle, descending from the Latin "non", but ended up being optional in informal speech. As M. Paul Shore refers to above, the use of ne alone is now the exception and mainly restricted to formal French. I believe the Language Log previously explored the history of negation in French.

    There's an interesting example in Cantonese that is rather the result of error or the loss of understanding of the origins of the expression over time. 冇陰功 (mou5 jam1 gung1) is a common expression of pity ("how could something like this happen?") – literally, there are no good deeds. 陰功 can be described as good deeds that one does in this world to build credit for life after death. 冇, meaning no, gradually got dropped from the expression, so that 陰功 (jam1 gung1) and 冇陰功 are now interchangeable. A more contemporary derivation is 陰功豬, adding the word for pig, which is used in pseudo-baby talk.

  8. ~flow said,

    February 20, 2022 @ 4:29 am


  9. John Swindle said,

    February 20, 2022 @ 7:29 am

    ~flow’s “莫大=最大” works in English too if we translate it as “none greater = the greatest.” In English the comparative in the first part is explicit, which helps a lot, but there’s still a sense of contradiction.

    In Honolulu there’s an establishment called Anytime Cafe or 無休館 (lit. “no rest cafe”, “nonstop cafe”). Here there’s no direct contradiction but maybe there’s some dissonance.

  10. John Swindle said,

    February 20, 2022 @ 7:45 am

    (It has more or less normal business hours, but it's true that it doesn't close between lunch and dinner. And Google Translate says 無休館 means “Open all day," so maybe it's an idiom, even if it doesn't have four characters.)

  11. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 20, 2022 @ 11:21 am

    Andrew Usher: Two examples in Spanish are

    "En mi vida", literally "in my life", used for "never in my life".

    En mi vida he visto un carácter tan pésimo de parte de una persona que gestiona su propio negocio. 'I have [never] in my life seen such an appalling character on the part of a person who manages their own business.' From this review of a hotel.

    "En absoluto", used for "absolutely not".

    ¿ Agresivo ? En absoluto. El humor no es violencia. I don't think I have to translate that one. From a comment at this blog post via the Corpus del Español.

    Both phrases are also used with negatives, still with a negative meaning. I can't say how similar this is to the Chinese phrases in Prof. Mair's post.

  12. wanda said,

    February 20, 2022 @ 12:45 pm

    Yeah right.

  13. wanda said,

    February 20, 2022 @ 12:53 pm

    "Duh" = "no duh"? Both mean "it's obvious." I think I am dating myself with this example.

  14. Sagi said,

    February 20, 2022 @ 2:25 pm

    I think this also exists in French ("avant qu'il ne parte"), see also here:

  15. Terpomo11 said,

    February 20, 2022 @ 2:46 pm

    Maybe a bit more afield but I'm also reminded of the old joke about how "fat chance" and "slim chance" mean the same thing.

  16. M. Paul Shore said,

    February 20, 2022 @ 9:19 pm

    David C.: I expressed myself too vaguely in the second paragraph of my comment above. The French ‘ne’ pléonastique I was talking about is not an archaic or literary negativizing use of the unaccompanied word “ne“, but rather is a use of “ne“ in certain fixed situations in which the word carries no negative force, or at least no negative force in any normal logical sense. That’s why it’s comparable to Prof. Mair’s examples of unnecessary negative particles or terms in certain set phrases in Mandarin.

    And Sagi: The ‘ne’ explétif you’re talking about in your comment is the same thing as the ‘ne’ pléonastique I’m talking about, just going by a different name.

  17. Andrew Usher said,

    February 21, 2022 @ 7:57 am

    Yes, that is the observation I was about to make. The Spanish examples Jerry Friedman gave in reply to me, of which only the second is a 'true negative' per my definition, are the _omission_ of a negative particle originally/logically present, as opposed to the _addition_ of one originally/logically absent, as in the Chinese and French.

    Not really in English, though: "no duh" is not a proper example, I think, as it may actually have been the original form, and it has likely been contaminated with, even used as a euphemism for, "no shit".

    We do have examples like "I wonder if he will/won't come", but I believe those were originally differentiated (as similarly in Latin) based on whether the positive or negative was the expected state, and therefore logical: cf. the more obvious pair "Is it (not) true that … ?", which definitely is.

  18. Scott Mauldin said,

    February 21, 2022 @ 5:08 pm

    I'm surprised no one has mentioned the French "t’inquiète"/"t’inquiète pas". Both mean "don't worry", but I suppose that in many cases it's used so casually that the negating "pas" is just unnecessary.

    A slightly different case but it's coming to mind so I might as well share: I'm often baffled by the fact that "c'est terrible" and c'est pas terrible" can mean the same thing. That's more a dual definition of "terrible" (basically like the English distinction between terrible and terrific), but the result is that the "pas" is essentially optional to communicate the meaning.

  19. Will Tennien said,

    February 21, 2022 @ 10:35 pm

    "He (knows / doesn't know) squat about economics." isn't hard to understand.

    "Squat" can be interpreted as meaning "a very small amount"

    "He doesn't know [a very small amount] about economics" => He knows less than a small amount about economics. = "He doesn't know even a small amount about economics"
    "He knows [a small amount] about economics" => He knows a small amount about economics.

  20. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 22, 2022 @ 3:09 pm

    Scott Mauldin: Thanks for teaching me another French expression.

    Andrew Usher: I'm curious about why you don't consider my en mi vida example a "true negative".

    Of course, French pas and rien are excellent examples of words that got negative meanings by the omission of a negative particle.

    I've always conjectured that the "No" in "No duh" was originally an ironic "No!" of surprise, though the intonation is (was?) very different.

  21. Andrew Usher said,

    February 23, 2022 @ 11:05 pm

    I defined a 'true negative' to be a sentence denying an assertion. While 'never' statements can be used for that purpose, your example was definitely not: it was _making_ an assertion about the hotel, emphatically, and one that's not logically negative. I agree it's not standard to limit the meaning of 'negative' in language that much, but I announced I was doing it, and for a reason.

    The intonation of the 'No' in "no duh" is the same as that in "no shit", which rather argues for my conjecture.

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