March 01, 2006

On not emerging unscathed

Soon after ABC News posted a transcript of Elizabeth Vargas's breezy (and often vapid) interview with President Bush, bloggers were quickly picking apart every "um" and "ah" faithfully rendered by the network's transcribers. Bush was slammed on the usual grounds of disfluency: he's "incapable of speaking in complete sentences," he displays a "deteriorating ability to speak English," and so forth. Rather than piling on, I'd like to examine something peculiar uttered by Vargas, not Bush. It's a case of overnegation followed by a self-repair that only makes matters more confusing.

In one of the interview's more serious moments, Vargas asks about how Dick Cheney has been doing since his hunting accident. The transcript reads:

VARGAS: Do you think it's changed him?

BUSH: Um, I'm confident it changed him some how, you know. I, I think it shook him, and any time you get shaken like that, it's gotta have some effect on you.

VARGAS: He called it one of the worst days of his life. I don't think you can endure something like that without emerging unscathed, or changed.

Vargas starts off her sentence with a negative construction: "I don't think you can endure something like that..." The opening is then offset by introducing another negative, "without..." (This is not unlike the rhetorical figure of litotes: the expression of an affirmative by negating its contrary.) Those two negatives carry her along into yet another one: "emerging unscathed." But this is one negation too far, since she means to say that Cheney couldn't endure the experience and emerge unscathed. Perhaps mindful that she has negated herself into a corner, Vargas adds a positive alternative, "...or changed," as a kind of self-repair. Unfortunately, though, she ends up conjoining a negative ("unscathed") with a positive ("changed"), treating the two terms not as antonyms but as somehow equivalent. She does not emerge from that muddled sentence unscathed, but Bush carries on without missing a beat ("Yeah, yeah, exactly...").

It's easy to see how Vargas ended up mired in her troublesome overnegation. She falls back on an idiomatic phrase, "emerging unscathed," even though what she needs is its opposite. But as with many idioms, there's no easy way to negate it ("emerging ununscathed"? "emerging scathed"?). So instead she performs a Porky-Pig-style substitution and switches out of the vexing idiom, though the switch happens rather too late to be effective.

A crystallized negative form without an obvious positive alternative like "(emerge/escape) unscathed" seems particularly prone to overnegation. Here are a few more examples from an online search:

No one enters the zone of his imagination without emerging unscathed. (Bad Subjects)

So much of the landscape around us has changed, and so have we, since it's nearly impossible to experience college without emerging unscathed or unaltered. (Franklin & Marshall College Dispatch)

Not without escaping unscathed, working alongside the General is Emil Blonsky, a man bent on destroying all specimens spawned of gamma rays. (Epinions)

What Sher dramatizes would indicate the virtual impossibility of emerging without being psychologically unscathed. (Wolf Entertainment Guide)

No man would go through that kind of mixed paradise and hell without escaping unscathed. (Rory V. Pascual)

No country in the world will be able to flatten Israel without itself going unscathed. (soc.culture.usa)

I found myself rereading these examples several times to make sure that they were actually cases of overnegation. Without self-conscious monitoring, such constructions happily remain in our heads, ununpacked.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at March 1, 2006 11:51 PM