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Lately I've been seeing greater use of this kind of sentence structure:  "He is an awesome hero — not".  And (mis)negation has always been a favorite topic for discussion on Language Log.  Consequently, I'm calling to your attention two recent publications on "not".

"'Not' in the Brain and Behavior." Cas W. Coopmans, Anna Mai, Andrea E. Martin, PLOS Biology 22, no. 5 (May 31, 2024): e3002656.

Negation is key for cognition but has no physical basis, raising questions about its neural origins. A new study in PLOS Biology on the negation of scalar adjectives shows that negation acts in part by altering the response to the adjective it negates.

Language fundamentally abstracts from what is observable in the environment, and it does so often in ways that are difficult to see without careful analysis. Consider a child annoying their sibling by holding their finger very close to the sibling’s arm. If asked what they were doing, the child would likely say, “I’m not touching them.” Here, the distinction between the physical environment and the abstraction of negation is thrown into relief. Although “not touching” is consistent with the situation, “not touching” is not literally what one observes because an absence is definitionally something that is not there. The sibling’s annoyance speaks to the actual situation: A finger is very close to their arm. This kind of scenario illustrates how natural language negation is truly a product of the human brain, abstracting away from physical conditions in the world.

"Negation Mitigates Rather than Inverts the Neural Representations of Adjectives." Arianna Zuanazzi, Pablo Ripollés, Wy Ming Lin, Laura Gwilliams, Jean-Rémi King, David Poeppel, PLOS Biology 22, no. 5 (May 30, 2024): e3002622.


Combinatoric linguistic operations underpin human language processes, but how meaning is composed and refined in the mind of the reader is not well understood. We address this puzzle by exploiting the ubiquitous function of negation. We track the online effects of negation (“not”) and intensifiers (“really”) on the representation of scalar adjectives (e.g., “good”) in parametrically designed behavioral and neurophysiological (MEG) experiments. The behavioral data show that participants first interpret negated adjectives as affirmative and later modify their interpretation towards, but never exactly as, the opposite meaning. Decoding analyses of neural activity further reveal significant above chance decoding accuracy for negated adjectives within 600 ms from adjective onset, suggesting that negation does not invert the representation of adjectives (i.e., “not bad” represented as “good”); furthermore, decoding accuracy for negated adjectives is found to be significantly lower than that for affirmative adjectives. Overall, these results suggest that negation mitigates rather than inverts the neural representations of adjectives. This putative suppression mechanism of negation is supported by increased synchronization of beta-band neural activity in sensorimotor areas. The analysis of negation provides a steppingstone to understand how the human brain represents changes of meaning over time.

Psycholinguists are linguists too, are they not?


Selected readings

[h.t. Edward McClure]


  1. Chris Button said,

    June 11, 2024 @ 9:29 pm

    I think it was Wayne's World that really popularized the "— not" structure.

  2. Jenny Chu said,

    June 11, 2024 @ 9:34 pm

    I just have been happily transported back to the late 1980s. Not.

  3. Ben Zimmer said,

    June 11, 2024 @ 9:40 pm

    See also my LL post from 9/27/16, "Trump's debate denials."

    This style of "not!" got a lot of attention in the early '90s thanks to its popularization in Saturday Night Live's "Wayne's World" sketches and subsequent movie spinoffs. But, contra the Recency Illusion, Wayne and Garth didn't coin the "not!" retort. As early as 1992, Larry Horn was pointing out the history of what he calls "retro-NOT" predating SNL. (See "The Said and the Unsaid," Ohio State University Working Papers in Linguistics 40, July 1992, pp. 186-7.) Jesse Sheidlower and Jonathan Lighter continued the historical investigation in their 1993 paper in American Speech, "A Recent Coinage (Not!)." The latest OED entry for not reflects this research:

    colloq.  [perhaps influenced by NIT adv.   (see J. T. Sheidlower and J. E. Lighter in Amer. Speech (1993)68 213–8). In later use, popularized by Mike Myers and Dana Carvey in the ‘Wayne's World’ sketches on the NBC television programme Saturday Night Live from 1989, and especially by the spin-off film Wayne's World in 1992.] Used humorously following a statement to indicate that it should not be taken seriously (usually because the idea expressed is untrue or unlikely to happen), or sarcastically to negate a statement made immediately before. Cf. I don't think at THINK v.2 11a(c).
    [1860   ‘G. Eliot’ Mill on Floss III. vi. vi. 90   She would make a sweet, strange, troublesome, adorable wife to some man or other, but he would never have chosen her himself. Did she feel as he did? He hoped she did—not.]
    1888   Cincinnati Times-Star 26 July 2/2   Of course ‘White Wings’ was mourned because he was hissed. Yes he did—not!!!
    1893   Princeton Tiger 30 Mar. 103   An Historical Parallel—Not.
    1900   G. Ade More Fables 80   Probably they preferred to go back to the Front Room and hear some more about Woman's Destiny not.
    1905   E. P. Butler Pigs is Pigs in Amer. Mag. Sept. 499   Oh, yes! ‘Mister Morehouse, two an' a quarter, plaze.’ ‘Cert'nly, me dear frind Flannery. Delighted!’Not!
    1950   R. Stout In Best Families vii. 73   The cop..called, ‘Pull over to the curb.’ Flattered at the attention as any motorist would be, not, I obeyed.
    1975   E. Wilson Twenties 323   Held up by cyclone at South Amboy—‘wicked little boy who kept jeering at us, “You'll get there tonight—not!”’
    1991   M. Myers et al. Wayne's World (film script, final revision) 89   Well, I'm having a good time so far..not. It sucks baby Rhino.
    2000   F. Walker Power of Two in J. Adams et al. Girls' Night In 48   Vizza revelled in increasingly outlandish exclusives, revealing his broken heart. Yeah. Like he knew how it felt—not.

  4. Chris said,

    June 11, 2024 @ 9:44 pm

    I associate it with early translations of Nintendo games, like Earthbound’s “A bee I am—not” (I admit, I can’t recall any other examples off-hand). Japanese negation falls at the end of the sentence, so the original text calls for introducing information then dramatically negating it and it just doesn’t work as well in English.

  5. AntC said,

    June 11, 2024 @ 10:24 pm

    Wayne's World late 1980's?

    As early as 1992, Larry Horn was pointing out …

    Shall we try 1978?

    “The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't.”
    [Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy]

    "Negation Mitigates Rather than Inverts the Neural Representations of Adjectives."

    Aren't the publications Victor references rather hung up on the Logician's 'not'? On the expectation double-negative makes a positive? There's plenty of languages for which that doesn't hold — indeed arguably it doesn't hold for English outside a rather unwordly academic sphere. I can't get no satisfaction.

  6. Jonathan Smith said,

    June 11, 2024 @ 10:25 pm

    Some Mandarin versions —
    XYZ cái​ guài 才怪 (lit. ≈ wouldn't it be something / a wonder if XYZ were the case)
    XYZ ge tóu 个头, ge pì 个屁… (more 'XYZ my ass' ish)

  7. Andreas Johansson said,

    June 12, 2024 @ 12:57 am

    The Hitch-hikers quote is surely something else. The negation just happens to be final, it's not extracted from its usual place.

  8. Chips Mackinolty said,

    June 12, 2024 @ 3:17 am

    The development over the years of the retro-NOT is indeed NOTable

  9. Philip Taylor said,

    June 12, 2024 @ 3:47 am

    Chris — Earthbound’s “A bee I am—not” — I don't think that, at least in isolation, this suggests that the word order is based on the original Japanese. I can certainly imagine writing (in English) when asked if I was happy with some particular outcome "Happy, I am not. But I am satisfied that all proper procedures were followed".

  10. Stephen Goranson said,

    June 12, 2024 @ 7:31 am

    My Mother (b. 1921, North Carolina) used to say something like ninaught, which I think meant don't.

  11. David Marjanović said,

    June 12, 2024 @ 8:14 am

    Oh, is it coming back? It feels much rarer than 20 years ago to me.

  12. Jonathan Smith said,

    June 12, 2024 @ 11:42 am

    The study about negation of "scalar" adjectives (Zuanazzi et. al. 2024) is an interesting read though… re: experimental design, one could object that not only are "not good" etc. not going to be interpreted as equal to "bad", etc., they are not even "scalar" — i.e., it is not simply the case that BAD < NOT GOOD < NOT BAD < GOOD or something, and asking for judgements in these terms is a bit weird… instead pragmatics / communicative intent are in play.
    All languages (I guess?) also have emphatic negation like "not X at all" which can be structured in radically different ways but share pragmatic intent… here it would be even weirder to think in terms of logic / scales.

  13. Vanya said,

    June 12, 2024 @ 11:51 am

    @David, has anyone ever tried to borrow this structure jocularly into German? Seems like it wouldn't work given that German often uses final negation anyway.

    Does any other language have a humorous/sarcastic version of negation that lines up with the English "Wayne's World" negation? I can't think of any. But I wonder how "Wayne's World" was dubbed into, say, Italian?

  14. JPL said,

    June 12, 2024 @ 6:10 pm

    WRT the ChatGPT as bullshitter post below, the reason an expression like,"The ChatGPT robot doesn't care (or "is indifferent") about the truth or falsity of its sentences" seems inappropriate is that we feel that if you attribute "not caring" or "indifference" to something, that something should be a being that is also capable of caring or not being indifferent ("being sensitive"?). The robot can not have this property, so it seems inappropriate to even describe it as "bullshitting". Neither "caring" nor "not caring" is applicable to it.

    BTW, WRT the "not touching" example, probably prior to this, child A said to B: "Don't touch me!" B then did their annoying act. The adult asks B, "What are you doing?" And B brings out the ambiguity of "Don't touch me" by saying "I'm not touching him/not-touching him." The latter describes what he's positively doing, in answer to the adult's question, and the former could be understood as a denial, but could also show that he's following A's request like a nice boy.

  15. David Marjanović said,

    June 13, 2024 @ 4:02 pm

    has anyone ever tried to borrow this structure jocularly into German?

    Not that I know of, and I agree it wouldn't work in the great majority of cases; but I wouldn't know what Young People Today might occasionally do, and I don't know how any such series was dubbed, if they were dubbed at all – chances are, though, that the entire joke was simply dropped.

  16. Walter Underwood said,

    July 6, 2024 @ 11:50 pm

    I was surprised to run across this construction in Three Soldiers by John Dos Passos.


    "Oh, we all ain't had a cent to spare for anythin', Andy."

    "Oh, if we had kale we could live like kings–not," said Al in the
    middle of a nervous little giggle.

    "Look, Chris," said Andrews, "I'll halve with you. I've got five hundred


    That was published in 1921. Not the earliest usage, but over 100 years ago.

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