February 21, 2004

Too complex to avoid judgment?

Deputy Attorney General James Comey, speaking after the indictment of Enron ex-CEO Jeffrey Skilling, got himself into one of those curious tangles where the combination of implicit and explicit negations in the sentence outstrip the logic centers of the brain and you say the exact opposite of what you meant:

"The Skilling indictment demonstrates in no uncertain terms that no executive is too prominent or too powerful and that no scheme to defraud is too complex or too fancy to avoid the long arm of the law."

I read that in the San Francisco Chronicle; you can read it on MSNBC; it was on NPR's voices-in-the-news feature on the Sunday Weekend Edition on February 27. But Comey meant the exact opposite of what he said.

To say that no scheme is too complex to avoid the law is to say that avoiding the law (getting away with it) cannot be prevented by excess complexity. But Comey clearly meant that failing to avoid the law (falling into the clutches of the prosecutors) will never be prevented by excess complexity. So he should have said that no scheme is so complex that it can avoid the law; or (equivalently) that no scheme is too complex for it to be subject to legal investigation and prosecution.

Yet virtually no one will have spotted the error. That's a very curious fact, for which I have nothing that would count as a serious explanation. It is perhaps worth pointing out, though, that there are three waves of negation in what Comey said. One wave comes in the multiple no determiners ("no scheme is F" means "it not the case that some scheme is F"); another is implicit in the multiple too modifiers ("too tired to rock" means "so tired that one is not able to rock"); and a third is implicit in the verb avoid ("avoid doing X" means "manage to not do X"). Human brains don't function well in the face of N negations for N > 2. And it may be worse when two out of three are implicit.

A case I've personally observed that is puzzling in a vaguely similar way is the phrase "filling a much-needed gap", which I actually saw as a headline in a Salvation Army newsletter -- devoted to a much-needed program that was filling a gap (it was not the gap that was much-needed). More closely similar (because it involves too) is a case that Kai von Fintel has briefly discussed, the putative hospital emergency room sign "No head injury is too trivial to ignore". No example of this sort is too fascinating not to avoid notice on Language Log.

[Note added later: No one is immune to occasional trouble with implicit negatives. Just last night I was involved in (and on the losing end of) a philosophical discussion with Barbara Scholz, who is extraordinarily acute of thought and careful of speech, and she told me sternly that there was an important point that I was failing to miss. This was not, of course, what she wished to say to me.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 21, 2004 01:23 AM