April 10, 2007

Diagnosis: GADHD

In his 4/5/2007 NYT opinion piece, "What Was He Thinking?", Dick Cavett wrote:

And then there’s, “If we announce a departure date, the enemy will just hunker down until we leave.” Isn’t that what most of Iraq’s “army” also will do? (They’re referred to by our troops as the “Keystone Kops.” Except the Kops showed up for work.)

Doesn’t never announcing a date allow them to return to their hammocks and let G.I. Joe continue to absorb the bullets?

Commenter #96 takes Cavett to task for "using the double negative":

For one so usually careful about English usage, I am surprised to see Mr. Cavett using the double negative in the third paragraph of the press conference/gutsy reporter portion of his article.

Shouldn’t it have read “Never announcing a date allows them to return . .” rather than the awkward “Doesn’t never announcing . . .”, equivalent to saying “Does not never”?

Can Cavett really defend using “Doesn’t never”?

It's no surprise that commenter #96 falls victim to Hartman's Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation (more properly known as the Hartman-McKean-Skitt Law). First, he identifies himself as "Donald A. Mollloy", with three l's. Second, his leading "For one so usually careful..." connects awkwardly with his following main clause, which forces the reader to puzzle over whether the usually-careful one is Mr. Mollloy or Mr. Cavett.

But the key point is that Mr. Mollloy's correction is really an incorrection.

There's nothing grammatically wrong with the two negatives in Mr. Cavett's sentence, even by the most standard of Standard English standards. In particular, his "doesn't never" has nothing do with the vernacular-language phenomenon popularly known as "the double negative", and sometimes known to linguists as "negative concord", which involves sentences like "we don't need no thought control" in place of the standard "we don't need any thought control", or "I didn't see nothing" in place of the standard "I didn't see anything".

In fact, as commenter #117 explains, this isn't even a standard-English case like "he never couldn't sleep at night", where the two negatives cancel to yield the same truth conditions as "he always could sleep at night". Instead, the doesn't is part of a framing rhetorical question ("doesn't __ allow them to ... ?"), while the never is part of an embedded phrase serving as the subject of allow ("never announcing a date").

Perhaps we can make the structure clearer this way:

Is is not the case that never announcing a date allows thus-and-such to happen?

Since this is a yes/no question, we ask essentially the same question whether or not the question is negated:

Is it the case that never announcing a date allows thus-and-such to happen?

The difference, in examples like this, lies in the answer that the writer or speaker wants us to give. A quick peek at phrase-initial uses of doesn't in the recent news will give you the flavor of this rhetorical device. In each case, I've given the answer that the writer obviously wants us to infer:

...doesn't the PGA Tour owe the "world" something a little more? [yes, it does...]
Doesn't the activity we call economics ... need some rethinking? [yes, it does...]
Doesn't she look just like a little devil leaning over his shoulder, whispering in his ear? [yes, she does...]

Cavett believes that the answer to his question should be "Yes, Mr. Cavett, never announcing a date allows them to return to their hammocks, etc." He invites us to join him in his belief, by expressing it framed in a negative yes/no question, just as these other writers did. It happens that the embedded belief has a subject-phrase whose verb announcing is modified by the negative adverb never -- but the result has nothing in common with any of the normal meanings of the phrase "double negative".

But we shouldn't blame Mr. Mollloy for getting this wrong. Thought I hesitate to offer a diagnosis without examining the patient in person, I strongly suspect that his problem is a disease, not a moral or intellectual flaw. If I'm right, Mr. Mollloy suffers from grammatical attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or GADHD, "which is characterized by difficulty in focusing on linguistic structure, paradoxically combined with obsessive and affectively intense delusions about widespread violations of 'rules of grammar'". Clinical trials are underway to compare the efficacy of SSRIs and cognitive therapy in ameliorating the effects of this crippling disorder.

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 10, 2007 07:52 AM