August 01, 2006

It's hard not to read this and not do a double-take

Here's the latest dispatch on the overnegation front... Over on Slate, Christopher Hitchens takes on Mel Gibson's "Jew-hatred," observing that Gibson has never disowned his father's anti-Semitic comments. Hitchens contrasts this with former White House press secretary Scott McClellan, who had to distance himself from his father's book claiming that Lyndon Johnson was responsible for the JFK assassination. If you click over to the Amazon link for Barr McClellan's Blood, Money & Power: How L.B.J. Killed J.F.K., you can see an approving blurb from Walt Brown, editor of JFK / Deep Politics Magazine:

It's hard not to read this work and not shout 'Guilty as hell'.

There's one too many not's there. Presumably Brown intended to write either:

It's hard not to read this work and shout 'Guilty as hell'.

or even better:

It's hard to read this work and not shout 'Guilty as hell'.

The wildly overstated claim that it's difficult to read this book without shouting 'Guilty as hell" resembles Geoff Pullum's snowclones of linguification. It's probably pretty easy to read the book without shouting that phrase, but Brown uses a snowclone for rhetorical effect. Unfortunately, it's a snowclone that's particularly prone to overnegation. Here are some more examples of the form "It's hard not to do X and not do Y" where one not or the other can be safely omitted:

It's hard not to walk into a press conference these days and not hear, at some point, "With scholarships where they are today..." (Univ. of Michigan Daily)

But it's hard not to read Olney's book and not appreciate the key members of the team that dominated baseball for half a decade. (Deseret News)

It's hard not to walk into a place like that and not be overwhelmed by the sheer craftmanship and care with which it was put together. (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

Indeed, it's hard not to view this build and not believe that Microsoft is absolutely back on track. (Paul Thurrott's SuperSite for Windows)

[In researching the period] it's hard not to look at 1910 and not see what's coming down the road. (Provincetown Banner)

But at the same time, it's hard not to look at this image of greatness and not feel a sense of awe. (Eurosport)

Another overnegated variant is "It's hard not to do X without doing Y":

It's hard not to think of the art of New Mexico without thinking of Georgia O'Keeffe. (Tucson Weekly)

It's hard not to tell somebody without having them freak out and get upset. (NY Daily News)

It's hard not to watch that without feeling. (CNN)

He's a man on a tightrope and it's hard not to watch him without worrying about him. (Austin Chronicle)

Indeed, it's hard not to think about Lincoln without writing your own, rococo history in your head. (Weekly Wire)

With so much success this season, it's hard not to discuss Notre Dame baseball without mentioning the College World Series. (Notre Dame Observer)

In both of these variants, there seems to be confusion over the scope of negation for "It's hard not to..." when this opening formula is followed by two conjoined VPs. When in doubt, people frequently overnegate. Sometimes it's hard not to construct a multiple-negation sentence without falling back on vernacular patterns of negative concord.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at August 1, 2006 01:05 AM