"A motive was immediately unknown"

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Lauren Hernández, "Teen, 16, fatally shot on Oakland street with high-powered rifle", 6/9/2022 (emphasis added):

A 16-year-old boy was killed in a shooting in Oakland on Thursday evening and police are urging witnesses to come forward, authorities said.

At about 6 p.m., Oakland police received a call of shots fired in the area of 3000 block of 64th Avenue, where one person was reported to be down and a potential second victim was “somewhere else,” Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong said in a video posted to Facebook.

Officers found the teen who had been shot with a “high-powered rifle,” Armstrong said. Police also received a ShotSpotter activation for the shooting, Armstrong said. “Several shots” were fired, he said.

“We are following up on the second individual who appeared to be a victim as well,” Armstrong said, adding that police believe that victim is in stable condition. Information on that victim was not immediately released.

A motive was immediately unknown on Thursday evening, Armstrong said.

There's an interesting contrast in scope of negation between the adjacent bolded sentences. Consider these alternative versions:

  1. (a) Information was not immediately released.
    (b) Information was immediately not released.
    (c) Information was immediately unreleased.
  2. (a) A motive was not immediately known.
    (b) A motive was immediately not known.
    (c) A motive was immediately unknown.

(The scope differences may be clearer to you if you substitute clearly for immediately.)

Presumably the author meant the second sentence to tell us that "a motive not immediately known", just as "information was not immediately released". For some (many?) people, including me, that reading isn't available for the sentence as presented in the published story — but perhaps the intended meaning was so strongly preferred for the author (or an editor) that this issue didn't arise.

Such cases evoke the (in)famous "unpassive" construction, like

Antarctica is uninhabited by man.

…where the apparently corresponding active-voice version doesn't work

*Man uninhabits Antarctica.

…unless the morphological negation ("un-") is split off as the separate word "not".

The obligatory screenshot:

[Hat tip: John Burke]


  1. akm said,

    June 13, 2022 @ 12:37 pm

    I thought this was going to be about the headline – why is there a street with a high-powered rifle??

    [(myl) I don't know, but it's probably just a few blocks from the street with a heart-breaking note attached to its collar…]

  2. David L said,

    June 13, 2022 @ 1:20 pm

    I wonder if an overscrupulous copyeditor objected to having 'not immediately' in consecutive sentences and therefore changed the second instance.

  3. Keith said,

    June 13, 2022 @ 1:35 pm

    "Police immediately jumped to the conclusion that they don't yet know all the details of what happened."

  4. Gregory Kusnick said,

    June 13, 2022 @ 2:19 pm

    Replacing "immediately" with "as of this morning's press conference" work.

    Alternatively we can imagine a hypothetical suicide-by-hitman scenario in which the motive becomes immediately unknown by anyone still alive (though that obviously doesn't apply in this case).

  5. Gregory Kusnick said,

    June 13, 2022 @ 2:20 pm


  6. David C. said,

    June 13, 2022 @ 2:39 pm

    Agree with Gregory Kusnick's interpretation here. It seems to be modeled on the phrase "did not immediately respond to a request for comment". It's an attempt to look balanced but in effect gives "the other side" no time to respond.


    This NPR opinion piece talked about giving two hours for response before a piece was published.

  7. VVOV said,

    June 13, 2022 @ 3:21 pm

    I had the same reaction as David L, i.e., this was a copyeditor's clumsy implementation of the general style guideline to avoid having the same construction ("not immediately") in two nearby sentences. The "… motive was immediately unknown" construction seems too infelicitous to be generated directly by the writer, although you never know.

  8. Andrew Usher said,

    June 13, 2022 @ 7:41 pm

    Actually, the two sentences are perfectly parallel in the correct construction:

    – Information was _not immediately_ released.
    – A motive was _not immediately_ known.

    It seems 'immediately' requires an inversion of the logical order of the two. On the other hand, if we do substitute 'clearly' as the post suggests, the verb must not be split for the same scope and we get 'clearly not'.in place of 'not immediately'. If we have 'not clearly Xed', the adverb narrowly modifies the verb; it means 'Xed in an unclear manner', but 'not immediately Xed' _does not_ mean 'Xed in a non-immediate manner' – it would require a different word to say that.

    I would think rather it was 'immediately not known' that was ultimately corrected to 'immediately unknown'; unfortunately while the former is awkward the latter is plain ungrammatical here..

    So we should rather be asking: what is the oddity with 'immediately'? Is it general to expressions of time?

    Re akm: 'High-powered rifle' is in fact at least as ambiguous in the story as in the headline, as should be seen on examination …

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  9. maidhc said,

    June 14, 2022 @ 3:41 am

    Using "immediately" to mean "right now", or actually "right then". In some contexts this would be acceptable, e.g., "the police arrived immediately". But in a negative sense it's not idiomatic. But it's a borderline case. You could say "It was not immediately clear what was going on", and I think this would be acceptable. What is exactly the difference between this and "a motive was immediately unknown" is a bit difficult to nail down.

    [(myl) The scope of negation is the problem, not the use of immediately.

    "It was not immediately clear" is fine. But "It was immediately not clear" doesn't mean the same thing. In Heavy English, it's the difference between "It was not the case that it was immediately clear" vs. "It was immediately the case that it was not clear".

    And "It was immediately unclear" has the same scope as "It was immediately not clear". ]

  10. John Swindle said,

    June 14, 2022 @ 4:44 am

    It was immediately clear that the motive was unknown, allowing police to avoid the time and expense that calling in the Known Motive squad would otherwise have entailed.

  11. Peter Taylor said,

    June 14, 2022 @ 4:45 am

    There's an interesting pragmatic question about the meaning of information, as well.

    "We are following up on the second individual who appeared to be a victim as well,” [police chief] Armstrong said, adding that police believe that victim is in stable condition. Information on that victim was not immediately released.

    Is "We believe the victim to be in a stable condition" not classed as information because it's only a belief, or because information here is a shorthand for information sufficient to identify?

  12. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 14, 2022 @ 6:41 am

    FWIW this link includes the video of the police chief being interviewed that appears to be what the story was paraphrasing. About a minute in he says (transcription not guaranteed 100% perfect): "Well, it's early in the investigation. We're … we've just started the investigation, not sure of what the motive is."

    This story paraphrases that as one piece of the sentence "Police have not revealed any leads and know of no motive." I suppose if you were feeling optimistic about the investigation you might add a word like "currently" that suggests that in time they will come to know of the motive.


  13. Olaf Zimmermann said,

    June 14, 2022 @ 7:01 am

    There's a paper by Leo Spitzer from 1940 ("Le Manque d'argent qui se fait rare") which is more or less exactly not entirely unrelated to this topic.

  14. Jonathan Smith said,

    June 14, 2022 @ 9:27 am

    "Sentence adverbs" can often be indifferent to scope — so presently/initially/apparently unknown = not presently/initially/apparently known. But "immediately" is just an adverb, or sth? If it behaved like e.g. "for the moment" the writer here would be more or less OK…

  15. chris said,

    June 14, 2022 @ 11:08 pm

    At first this reminded me of the "completely untested" thread from a while back. Negation by prefix doesn't allow flexibility about where to place the negative so as to indicate the intended scope. (ISTR in that thread there was some doubt whether the products had been incompletely tested, or not tested at all.) There is no more a verb "to unknow" than "to untest" or "to uninhabit".

    But it also partly IS about "immediately" — there would be no similar problem with "The motive is currently unknown", and it even correctly implicates that the motive may become known in the future. So why is it unidiomatic to expect "immediately" to behave the same way?

    I think "immediately" has a connotation of finality about it that is opposed to, say, "initially". If the motive is initially unknown then you're suggesting that you expect it to become known eventually, or at least that you consider it possible.

    Consider "the attempt initially failed" vs. "the attempt immediately failed". What do they imply (or, strictly speaking, implicate) about later developments?

  16. Philip Anderson said,

    June 15, 2022 @ 5:46 pm

    Regarding negation by prefix, I recently met the phrase “unlockable fetters”, which I initially parsed as un-lockable; however, they were contrasted with fetters welded shut, so actually meaning they were unlock-able (and by implication lockable as well).

  17. Jonathan Smith said,

    June 15, 2022 @ 6:00 pm

    ^ I was thinking above that this is because in "initially failed", "currently unknown", etc., the "adverbs" really relate whole-predication level conditions; here English (exceptionally? and as a secondary development?) happens to permit an adverb-sensu-stricto encoding… more obvious cases include e.g. "she's apparently tired" (not an answer to "how tired is she?"), etc.

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