July 27, 2006

Unlike no other

The Marketplace radio show yesterday ("Faith Nights get the call", 7/26/2006) interviewed Brent High, CEO of Third Coast Sports, a company that produces "Faith Nights" at baseball games and other sporting events, and recorded him saying

"It is an opportunity -- unlike no other -- to introduce people to the church in an environment that is not churchy."

This seems to a clear example of overnegation, like "No head injury is too trivial to ignore", or "This is sure to be a killer tournament, don't fail to miss it!" It's obvious what Mr. High meant, but what he said seems literally to mean the opposite. If this opportunity were "like no other (opportunity)", or "unlike any other (opportunity)", it would be a uniquely good (or perhaps uniquely bad) opportunity. But if this opportunity is "unlike no other (opportunity)", then all opportunities are the same, and you might as well pass out tracts on a random streetcorner as set up a Faith Night at Turner Field. At least, that's how it works if two negatives make a positive.

Barbara Wallraff considered this expression in her Word Court feature back in 2003. Her judgment, rendered in response to a reader who found the expression confusing, was:

I looked for examples of “unlike no other” in print and, to my surprise, found them. “Unlike no other” is a double negative. If that’s what people are saying, you’re not confused—they are.

Barbara may be right that some of these are examples of negative concord, the "It ain't no cat can't get in no coop" construction persisting in the vernacular from the old grammar of negation in English, before our linguistic ancestors got mixed up by those French invaders. The wikipedia entry on double negatives quotes a song lyric

Well, I ain't never done nothing to nobody.
I ain't never got nothing from nobody, no time.
And, until I get something from somebody sometime,
I don't intend to do nothing for nobody, no time.

and the dialect expression "I am not never going to do nowt no more for thee." Linguists generally treat these multiple negations as a form of agreement or feature spreading, which is obligatory in the standard versions of many languages. Examples from the wikipedia article include Serbian:

Niko nikada nigde ništa nije uradio, literally Nobody never nowhere nothing did not do, meaning "Nobody ever did anything anywhere."


Nikdo nic nevyhrál, literally Nobody didn't win nothing, meaning "Nobody won anything."


Soha sehol ne mondj el semmit senkinek, literally Never nowhere don't tell no one about nothing, meaning "Don't ever, anywhere tell anyone about anything."

Classical Greek:

μὴ θορυβήσῃ μηδείς, literally Do not let no one raise an uproar, meaning "Let no one raise an uproar."


Dis (=Dit is) nie so moeilik om Afrikaans te leer nie, literally It's not so difficult to not learn Afrikaans, meaning "It's not so difficult to learn Afrikaans."

(There are a lot of interesting issues about how far various sorts of negation spread or don't spread in different languages, but that's a matter for another post.)

Some of the "unlike no other" examples in English might be related to the vernacular pattern of negative concord. Here's a possible case from an AP story about NASCAR ("Busch Turns the Corner with a Surge of Success", 7/16/2006):

Roush said: “Well, it’s been a great ride with Mark Martin for 600 starts now. He’s brought intensity, enthusiasm, great driving ability and integrity to the driver’s seat, unlike no other driver that I can recall.”

I've got no idea how Jack Roush talks when he gets comfortable, but it's possible that he's fine with saying things like "he ain't like no other driver", and in that case, the extra "no" in his quote might just be negative concord. But there are other examples, in more formal contexts, that I'm pretty sure are just ordinary overnegation, where people have just gotten confused about how many negatives are really needed to make their point. Here's an example from the presumably well-edited O'Reilly Safari site for David A. Karp's "eBay Hacks, 2nd Edition":

Unlike no other book, eBay Hacks, 2nd Edition also provides insight into the social aspects of the eBay community, with diplomatic tools to help to get what you want with the least hassle and risk of negative feedback.

That's not a dialect form or an idiom, it's just a mistake. Or is it? Could (some) overnegations in English be a formal residue of a stubborn hankering for negative concord? On this view, confusion about the semantic complexities of multiple negation plays the role of a sleepy gatekeeper, allowing vernacular impulses to sneak into the standard language.

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 27, 2006 07:04 AM