Annals of scalar predication

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Mark Halperin, "Biden Pool Report", 12/23/2008; Nia-Malika Henderson, "VP-elect warns against pork-laden stimulus", Politico, 12/23/2008; etc.:

“Economists rarely agree, but on this score, there is overwhelming agreement that we need a robust and sustained economic recovery package,” Biden said. “There’s virtually no disagreement on that point with economists from left to right. The greater threat to the economy lies with doing too little rather than not doing enough.”

Another case where the interaction among negatives and scalar predicates ends up one off, plus or minus.  I was suprised that none of the news reports commented on this — or have I missed an interpretation?


  1. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 1, 2009 @ 1:43 pm

    I'm afraid that Joe Biden's linguistic goofs are no longer news.

    [(myl) But the "no longer news" thing to do would be pass over this particular remark in silence. Instead, many sources quoted it as if it meant what the VP-elect intended, i.e. "doing too little poses a greater threat than doing too much", which is how Larry Summers put it in a WaPo OpEd. The video clip of Biden saying "doing too little rather than not doing enough" has been shown several times today on CNN, again as if it were a sensible comment on the proposed economic stimulus package. So I wonder whether anyone has noticed the problem. ]

  2. Luke Winikates said,

    January 1, 2009 @ 2:52 pm

    Not an erudite theory on something linguistic at work here, but I wonder if the error comes from an ingrained self-censorship habit of some kind.

    Maybe saying "too little" and "not enough" as though they were twin risks comes naturally from a grab bag of safe phrases for the occasion– whereas suggesting a tension between "too little" and "too much" with the pair at close proximity might elicit too clear of an image our economy of perilously navigating two equally dangerous extremes. Simply hearing the words "doing too much," even within a context that negates the risk, might invite the kind of worry that Biden's trying to stave off. Maybe it's rhetorically more effective for his purposes of providing reassurance about our new proactive economic policy to have "dangers" +"extra dangerous" + "doing too little" + "not doing enough," and the syntactic butter was spread too thin for the disagreement between the literal meaning of the sentence and the clearly intended message to be caught by Biden, most newspeople, or myself on first glace.

    That seems like the sort of thing that could happen often in political speech, which one suspects is often not spontaneous utterance so much as sometimes botched composition from a list of previously considered messages.

  3. Rubrick said,

    January 1, 2009 @ 6:17 pm

    I think your interpretation is correct. It might well have gone largely unnoticed. I believe I have a better-than-average eye/ear for spotting these sorts of errors, yet I saw nothing wrong in my first read. I think once the listener hears "the greater threat… lies with doing too little rather than…", he already knows what the sense of the rest of the sentence will be, and tends to gloss over the details.

  4. Mark Liberman said,

    January 1, 2009 @ 6:29 pm

    Rubrick: I think once the listener hears "the greater threat… lies with doing too little rather than…", he already knows what the sense of the rest of the sentence will be, and tends to gloss over the details.

    It's well known that low-entropy words like "the" are especially likely to be missed in proofreading, so this theory makes sense.

  5. dr pepper said,

    January 1, 2009 @ 8:29 pm

    Another cases where the interaction among negatives and scalar predicates ends up one off, plus or minus.

    Semantic parity error.

  6. dr pepper said,

    January 1, 2009 @ 8:29 pm

    Hmm, quotes didn't work.

  7. Spectre-7 said,

    January 1, 2009 @ 9:10 pm

    Hmm, quotes didn't work.

    Try blockquote with the usual angle-brackets and slash.

  8. dr pepper said,

    January 2, 2009 @ 1:29 am

    Try blockquote with the usual angle-brackets and slash.


  9. dr pepper said,

    January 2, 2009 @ 1:29 am

    Ah. Thanks!

  10. Stephen Jones said,

    January 2, 2009 @ 4:53 am

    You can tell if your HTML is working by looking at the preview which shows below your comment as you're writing it.

  11. Rick S said,

    January 2, 2009 @ 6:35 am

    Ditto Rubrick. It took me four readings to spot it, in fact. But I claim an exemption for only having had half a cup of coffee so far.

  12. Richard said,

    January 2, 2009 @ 7:47 am

    One possible analysis would be to take instances of not showing up in positions such as this to be examples of cryptanalysis (in the sense of William Croft, Explaining Language Change (2000), pp. 134 ff.). In this phenomenon an element that is semantically present and that would receive no overt morphosyntactic exponent is given an overt marker. (It is something which typically shows up with negation in the environment of comparatives, expressions of doubt, and other polarity-charged locutions.) If so, here the implied negative of rather than (which, semantically, normally denies what follows and is equivalent in polarity to and not) is showing up.

    On this analysis (i.e. ignoring the not), however, Biden's statement actually presents different difficulties. Most significant is the use of the stronger form rather than instead of just than after the comparative greater: while both could be OK, I think, it seems to me that the use of rather normally gives pragmatic focus to the than phrase and conveys a stronger exclusion of that second possibility. If one rhetorical aim of the senator was precisely to emphasise the twin dangers of doing too much or too little, than would have been a better choice to allow them both to be portrayed as genuine possibilities. Why, then, did he use rather than? I suspect Biden was trying rhetorically to have his cake and eat it. He wanted to convey the fact that there are twin dangers and yet he also wanted to convey his (here covert) view that he doesn't think that there is in fact much danger or likelihood (on present form) of anyone actually doing or wanting/planning to do too much, hence the stronger exclusion of the second possibility. This is supported by his use of enough: by using this term he implies that even the most extensive (and expensive) current plans are not in his view worthy of the description too much. Unfortunately by combining the two rhetorical aims, this problem in meaning has arisen: having set out down the route of one construction, he finds that his use of not has closed off the second half that he might have wanted, so he switches to saying something in which he can make use of the not and which is something that he also in fact believes (i.e. that not doing enough is a great threat).

    Before anyone else says it, I would agree that this is perhaps being too kind to Senator Biden, who probably did just make a mistake (saying what he meant rather than meaning what he said?), but it is interesting to explore the an alternative linguistic possibility.

  13. Chris said,

    January 2, 2009 @ 8:45 am

    I think it's sufficiently obvious what he meant ("…than doing too much") that there's not much point in commenting on it other than as a cheap gotcha.

    Which means I'm still surprised not to see the cheap gotcha on conservative sites, but then, I haven't looked, I just assumed you had before making the comment you made about nobody commenting on it.

    [(myl) I did look for gotchas, cheap or otherwise, and didn't see any as of the time that I posted this.

    For those journalists who both understood what Biden meant and also understood what he said, the appropriate response (as I observed above) would have been to pass over his remark in silence.

    Instead, it was prominently and widely featured, both in print and on CNN's American Morning show, as an expression of the Obama about-to-be-administration's views on the appropriate size of an economic stimulus package.

    I thought it was mildly interesting that Biden said this in the first place, and much more interesting that so many journalists accepted the intended meaning without noticing that that the actual statement was self-contradictory. Judging from the comments by Rubric and Rick S, many if not most readers and listeners responded in a similar way.

    Perhaps you could regard this as an expensive gotcha. ]

  14. Aaron Davies said,

    January 3, 2009 @ 10:40 am

    @stephen jones & dr pepper: in this case, perhaps the preview would have helped. in the general case, however, it lies. i don't have an example handy, but there are plenty of html constructs that look beautiful in the preview but are summarily deleted by the blogging engine when actually submitted.

  15. Aaron Davies said,

    January 3, 2009 @ 10:44 am

    @richard: i've been noticing for quite a while the tendency, on the internet, at any rate, for people to completely forget the (most often contracted) negation in sentences that obviously require it. this is unfortunately extremely difficult to search for, so i don't have an actual example handy at the moment, but a typical one would have been if the earlier part of this sentence had read "so i do have an actual example handy at the moment". any possible relation, or is something else going on? it seems to happen a bit too frequently to be simple typing errors.

  16. david said,

    January 3, 2009 @ 11:17 pm

    As for missed interpretations, one could conceive that he meant "doing [this thing, which is] too little rather than not doing [something else, which would be] enough.”, in the sense of "the best is the enemy of the good".

    But it's more likely simply confusion on his part.

  17. Mary Kuhner said,

    January 4, 2009 @ 1:21 am

    The grammar checker in Microsoft Word will occasionally recommend removing a negation in a situation where it's grossly wrong to do so. The example I saw in print was "Loans shall not be given under the following circumstances" losing its "not." That example does not work on my copy of MS Word, but I have seen the phenomenon with other sentences (unfortunately I didn't write them down at the time).

    This is only tangentially related to the Biden sentence, but perhaps suggests that negations are hard for software as well as people.

    Or perhaps Microsoft could simply care less….

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