Another misnegation/miscomparison

« previous post | next post »

From Breffni O'Rourke,  another example of the conceptual tangle created by the interaction of scalar comparison and (implicit) negation:

Just another one of these. There's no outright negation, but it seems related – the implied negative of "only" interacting with the scalar comparison "more slowly". The arithmetic comes out with the wrong sign in any case:

"The Tories came back into power in 2010. Over the course of this unbroken period of rule, typical household incomes in Britain have risen more slowly than those in only two other western European countries: Greece and Cyprus."

He means either "…risen more slowly than those in all but two other…" or "risen faster than those in only two other…".

The quotation is from Fintan O'Toole, "Liz Truss will make Johnson seem a political genius, May a mistress of empathy, Cameron a beacon of sincerity", The Irish Times 9/5/2022.

And as usual, it's really hard for our poor monkey brains to process cases like this — I agree with Breffni about this one, but no doubt some commenters will not.

The obligatory screenshot:


  1. Wally said,

    September 5, 2022 @ 12:27 pm

    Yeah I immediately get the intended meaning and it’s a real struggle to make it seem wrong.

  2. Dan Romer said,

    September 5, 2022 @ 1:03 pm

    Fintan is a bright man and a great writer. I get what he means. Incomes have risen more slowly in the UK than in other European countries with the exception of Greece and Cyprus.

  3. Charles Antaki said,

    September 5, 2022 @ 1:13 pm

    I fear that my own monkey brain is failing the test, but ditto to Wally; I can’t easily see the alternative.

    It seems natural to read it as “only Greece and Cyprus have had slower growth”, implying “only’ as “all but” as the natural sense of it.

    As we would, I think, in eg:

    Q – why did you buy Zad?
    A – Zad was cheaper than only [or: all but] Brill and Kleen, which aren’t worth buying

  4. Jonathan Smith said,

    September 5, 2022 @ 2:58 pm

    "Mean household income in X has grown considerably since 2010, rising slower than only two other countries in the region: Y and Z" is also easy to understand (I think) — so the advantage of the monkey brain is precisely "getting the intended meaning".

    Also, Greece and Cyprus are in Western Europe…?

  5. JPL said,

    September 5, 2022 @ 5:28 pm

    It seems that it's just that "all but" is missing between "in" and "only"; I think it's OK to keep the "only" there. Fintan O'Toole is a highly competent writer of English, so I would guess it's a case of someone not proofreading a sentence that was perhaps typed quickly.

  6. John Swindle said,

    September 6, 2022 @ 6:07 am

    Hard to understand, yes, but not logically conflicted. Turn the word order around. In only two other Western European countries, Greece and Cyprus, have typical household incomes risen more slowly than in Britain.

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    September 6, 2022 @ 6:32 am

    " implying “only’ as “all but” as the natural sense of it" — I cannot see how "only" can possibly be interpreted as meaning "all but" — consider the following :

    1) "All but two MPs left the House in protest"
    2) "Only two MPs left the House in protest"

    In the first case, two MPs remained in the House; in the latter case, two MPs left the House — they are diametric opposites.

  8. Andrew Usher said,

    September 6, 2022 @ 7:46 am

    I agree; this is an unambiguous error. What was originally written I could not tell, but 'all but only' would be a candidate for editing because of its redundancy, so is possible.

    I don't think anyone could present evidence that this is even a common use of 'only', let alone to be considered acceptable.

    k_over_hbarc at

  9. Breffni said,

    September 6, 2022 @ 7:52 am

    John Swindle: the actual wording is "typical household incomes in Britain have risen more slowly than those in only two other western European countries: Greece and Cyprus." Simplifying (but not inverting the word order), household incomes in Britain have risen more slowly than in Greece or Cyprus, and more slowly than only those two. O'Toole (who I agree is an excellent writer) accidentally inverts the league table:

    1&2. Greece & Cyprus (fastest rising)
    3. UK (HIs rising more slowly than only G&C, therefore faster than …)
    4…n. The Rest

    If you invert the word order, you also have to flip the direction of the inequality: UK > G&C becomes G&C < UK.

    Philip Taylor: I think I agree, but I may be misunderstanding Charles Antaki's point.

  10. Bloix said,

    September 6, 2022 @ 12:15 pm

    In cases like this, you do the obvious thing: delete the grammatically optional words and see what's left.

    "typical household incomes in Britain have risen more slowly than those in only two other western European countries: Greece and Cyprus"


    "incomes in Britain have risen more slowly than those in Greece and Cyprus."

    Which is obviously the inverse of what's intended. But the extra words hide the obvious error from plain view.

    Why is the error obvious? The literal meaning of the full sentence is that Greece and Cyprus have had the highest income rises in western Europe. The ranking must be Greece/Cyprus one and two, Britain three, everyone else, also-rans. But everyone "knows" that Greece and Cyprus have basket-case economies. So we "know" that there's a mistake without the knowledge rising to the level of consciousness. And we respond by inferring, below the level of consciousness, what we "know" must be intended.

    People may be familiar with Daniel Kahneman's insightful book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman posits two systems of mental processing, which he gives the Dr Seuss-like names System 1 and System 2 (presumably as an admission that he doesn't understand the underlying structures embodying the two systems).

    As a matter of conservation of energy and effort, he asserts, we must have a way to solve problems almost instantaneously and without consciously thinking about them. So we have evolved System 1, which can reach into memory and combine solutions to problems we've solved before into new solutions. What's one mogster plus one mogster? We solve this without thought even though we have never solved it before. Our knowledge – that is, memory – of arithmetic tells us instantly that one plus one is two, and our knowledge – that is, memory – of English vocabulary and grammar tells us that mogster is a count noun. So System 1provides the answer.

    But how about 83,497 mogsters plus 38,736 mogsters? For most of us, System 1 can't do it – the arithmetic is too complex. We need System 2. And System 2 will not go to work until you make a conscious decision to engage it. Did you solve the second mogster problem? Of course you didn't.

    For those of us who are literate, the simple act of reading comprehension is a System 1 level issue. We come at a sentence with the assumption that we can understand it with System 1, and System 1 promptly gives us a solution that allows us to continue reading without a hiccup.

    But System 1 can be fooled by problems that appear simple because they resemble problems we've solved before, but are different enough to require a different answer – different due to an error, or perhaps an effort to mislead. If the question is surrounded by noisy distractions that must be reviewed for System 1 to do its work (not just one odd word like mogster, but clauses about typical households and western Europe), it is more likely to be fooled. And that's what has happened here: an error that we might have otherwise spotted easily has been unintentionally camouflaged well enough to fool System 1. System 1 then gives us an answer that we are willing to accept (which turns out to be what was intended!) and we go on reading.

  11. Bloix said,

    September 6, 2022 @ 12:19 pm

    Apologies to Breffni for posting before reading his comment, which first made the point about how removing excess words makes the error obvious.

  12. David Marjanović said,

    September 6, 2022 @ 12:50 pm

    Also, Greece and Cyprus are in Western Europe…?

    In Cold War Terms, yes – they were "west" of the Iron Curtain.

  13. John Swindle said,

    September 7, 2022 @ 1:48 am

    @Breffni, @Bloix, yes, of course, I was mistaken and you're right. Thank you!

  14. AntC said,

    September 12, 2022 @ 4:18 am

    Hot off the press: starting about 11:55 — although it's Māori Language week, so starting at 0:00 hear the Prime Minister's welcome in Te Reo.

    cases are more than ten times lower than what they were earlier in the year

    ? cases are less than a tenth what they were?

RSS feed for comments on this post