January 21, 2004

Negated, or not

There's a handful of English constructions in which, quite surprisingly, one can add or remove a negation without change of meaning. Paul Postal discusses my favorite of these in 'The structure of one type of American English vulgar minimizer', from his new collection Skeptical Linguistic Essays. (I am pretty sure that this paper was once called 'The grammar of squat', but I guess that was too skeptical even for Paul.) In (1)-(2), the vulgar minimizer, the item to watch, is squat:

(1) Eddie knows squat about phrenology. (jack, beans, diddley)
(2) Eddie doesn't know squat about phrenology.

I'm delighted to report that both (1) and (2) mean that Eddie knows nothing about phrenology. This is potential trouble for the hypothesis that natural language negation is just like the logician's negation, which takes any statement and reverses its value. That hypothesis predicts that if (1) is true then (2) is false (for example). But in fact they are semantically equivalent.

The vulgar minimizers aren't the only items that refuse to have their polarity reversed by negation.

In (3)-(6), I exemplify the other negation-indifferent items that I know about. This is a heterogenous bunch, and in some the negation might effect a subtle shift of meaning. But in no case does the logician's negation seem to be much help.

(3)a. That'll teach you not to tease the alligators.
b. That'll teach you to tease the alligators.
(4)a. I wonder whether we can't find some time to shoot pool this evening.
b. I wonder whether we can find some time to shoot pool this evening.
(5)a. You shouldn't play with the alligators, I don't think.
b. You shouldn't play with the alligators, I think.
(6)a. I couldn't care less about monster trucks. (see Skeptical Linguistic Essays, page 361, footnote 3)
b. I could care less about monster trucks.

Example (6b), could care less, comes in for a hard time from some prescriptivists. But the others haven't caused a stir, as far as I know.

Posted by Christopher Potts at January 21, 2004 02:12 PM