Not anybody who doesn't think it won't

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Professor Pauline Jacobson of Brown University asks Language Log whether Dana Bash, CNN's chief congressional correspondent, is saying the government will shut down or that it won't. Language Log likes to go back to primary sources, so here is a verified direct quotation from Ms. Bash on this topic that appeared on the website of in Milwaukee:

"I've not talked to anybody here who doesn't think it's a very, very big possibility, even Republicans, that the government won't shut down — even for a short time," Bash said.

OK, let's take this real slow. If she has not talked to anybody who doesn't think that P, that implies everyone does think that P; it leans toward the view that P is (probably) true. Now for the P. If it's a "big possibility" (even for Republicans) that the government won't shut down, that leans toward it not shutting down.

Putting it all together, it looks like everyone thinks it probably won't shut down. Not even for a short time.

Yet the whole article is about "a move that makes a government shutdown very likely." And the paragraph just before the quotation above says "Congress could avert a shutdown by passing a temporary spending measure while the two chambers work out their differences. But neither side is talking about that now." Fox thinks it is now very likely that the government will shut down, and is citing Ms. Bash in support of their view.

So to sum up, Language Log believes Ms. Bash may have said the exact opposite of what she meant. Taking a flying guess at what she meant to say, we think it was probably something like this: "Everyone I've talked to here, even Republicans, thinks it's a very, very big possibility that the government will shut down, even though it may be only for a short time."

However, reading a triple negation that should have been either a double negation or a quadruple negation, and which had several phrases in places where they clearly did not make sense, has made Language Log's head feel slightly woozy, and Language Log is now going to go to a quiet place and lie down with a damp cloth over its eyes for a while.

Notice, by the way, that Professor Jacobson is one of the world's most distinguished semanticists. Her job involves studying the meanings of tricky sentences every single day, and working out how to represent their meanings formally. If she cannot understand a sentence and has to ask Language Log (she suspected Ms. Bash of having misspoken, but wanted to check with us), then we really are dealing with a sentence that is in a world of hurt.

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