July 20, 2004

Is the last not to be seen also the last to be seen?

A few weeks ago, entangledbank noted a sentence about Alice Springs in Australia, which is apparently an addition to the set of cases where "one can add or remove a negation without change of meaning", as Chris Potts put it in his post on the subject.

In 1862 the Scot explorer John McDouall Stuart was the first European to travel to the area, one of the last parts of the world not to have been seen with European eyes.

But it seems to me -- though I'm strictly an amateur in semantics -- that there's an implication in one direction, but not in the other. Thus if a particular chocolate was the last chocolate in the box to be eaten, it was necessarily also the last chocolate in the box not to be eaten. However, if a chocolate is the last one not to be eaten, it remains to be seen whether it will be eaten or not.

When the negative version of such a sentence is in the past tense, it's natural to infer that the negative state has since changed to positive. Otherwise why use the past tense? But the implication seems to be cancellable: "the Crunchy Frog was the last chocolate in the box not to be eaten... and in fact it has remained uneaten up to the present moment."

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 20, 2004 08:11 AM