July 14, 2007

Multiplex negatio ferblondiat

Doonesbury for 7/13/2007:

Multiple negatives can indeed be tricky-- especially in combination with modals and scalar predicates -- as I was reminded by an email exchange over the past few days.

It started with a message from Lila Gleitman about a coincidence:

First Anna Papafragou and I wrote a paper, it happened to be a review of Whorfian perspectives, and at one point we are pointing out that this approach, if true and general (which it happens not to be!), would be a radical departure from prior thinking and therefore would be of great importance. So we wrote:

(1) The importance of this position cannot be underestimated.

Of course I shouldn't have just said "so," but rather "but," because what we wrote is the opposite of what we meant to convey, unless you conjecture some Freudian-like slip exposing our underlying Whorf-skepticism. The interesting thing is that neither Anna nor I nor our editors nor most readers noticed the slip, until Barbara Landau who read it some months after it was published, Barbara, of course, was laughing at me and Anna at this point. So imagine my glee (and Barbara's chagrin) when just the other day I came across the following, which was the last line in a recent LANDAU paper. Here, Landau is speaking of an experimental effect that she and colleagues had achieved and she meant to say that these had broad theoretical implications, but she wrote

(2) The importance of this effect shouldn't be overestimated.

Funny coincidence, these two verbal gaffes. But afterwards I was trying to reflect on what makes such expressions tricky to assign the right interpretations (to). Something about how the over/under is interacting with both the negatives and modals, but I found that I could not think how to describe this. Why should "should not" and "cannot" yield the interpretations of under/overestimate that they do here?

I responded that there's a series of Language Log posts on this and closely-related subjects, which collectively offer several (non-exclusive) hypotheses about why over- and under-negation are so easy to fail to miss:

1) People get confused about multiple negatives and/or scalar predicates, etc.
2) The connection between English and modal logic may involve some unexpected ambiguities;
3) Negative concord is alive and well in English (or in UG);
4) Odd things become idioms or at least verbal habits ("could care less"; "fail to miss"; "still unpacked").

A message from Kai von Fintel reminded us of a seminal post on semantics etc., citing the ancient wisdom that "no head injury is too trivial to ignore".

And Larry Horn cited his even more seminal 1991 CLS paper "Duplex negatio affirmat...? The economy of double negation" (The seminality of this paper would be further enhanced by the availability of old CLS papers in digital form, so that people could actually, like, read them -- hey, Chicago Linguistic Society, how about it? In this particular case, I'll see if I can find a copy to scan...):

First, some instances illustrating the principle I suggested calling "Triplex negatio confundit", which I attribute to the familiar difficulty (citing P. Wason, H. Clark, and my negation book) of processing negation.  I claim there that "The tendency to use a triple negation to convey a positive is especially prevalent when at least one of the negatives is incorporated into the adverb too or as an inherently negative predicate like surprised, avoid, deny, or doubt, as seen in the examples below.  In these cases, we have the effect of a REINFORCING ("illogical") double negation canceling out an ordinary negation, yielding a positive."

There was none too poor or too remote not to feel an interest.
Jane Austen, cited in Jespersen (1917:  78-9)
No detail was too small to overlook.
New Yorker 12/14/81, Words of One Syllable Department
People knew too little about him not to vote against him.
Bill Moyers on why voters in 1984 primaries voted for Gary Hart
Nothing is too small or too mean to be disregarded by our scientific economy.
R. H. Patterson, Economy of Capital (1865), cited in Hodgson (1885: 219)
No one is too poor not to own an automobile.
Review by Vincent Canby (N. Y. Times 1/22/84) of "El Norte", characterizing the
naive belief of two young illegal Guatemalan immigrants about riches of America

There was no character created by him into which life and reality were not thrown with such vividness, that the thing written did not seem to his readers the thing actually done.              J. Forster, Life of Charles Dickens (1873), cited in Hodgson (1885: 219)
I can't remember when you weren't there,
When I didn't care
For anyone but you...    
Opening lines of Kenny Rogers pop song "Through the Years"
I can't say I don't blame him. 
Radio disk jockey; meaning in context = 'I don't blame him'
I have but one comfort in thinking of the poor, and that is, that we get somehow adjusted to the condition in which we grow up, and we do not miss the absence of what we have never enjoyed.
Froude, Nemesis of Faith, cited in Hodgson (1885: 218)
It never occurred to me to doubt that your work...would not advance our common object.
Darwin, cited in Jespersen (1917)

One senior White House official said no one ever doubted that Mr. Reagan would allow Mr. Meese's move to the Justice Department to deprive him of a trusted adviser who had served him in his 1980 campaign and later as counselor to the President.
N. Y. Times article "Politics and the Attorney General", 4/21/85
There is no doubt that the commissioner will not give Pete an impartial hearing.
Pete Rose's lawyer Reuven Katz in radio interview, 8/24/89, expressing his
(perhaps premature) confidence in Commissioner Bart Giamatti's fairness

I would not be surprised if his doctoral dissertation committee is not composed of members from several departments within a university.
Letter of recommendation for applicant to Yale Graduate School
(cf. Don't be surprised if it doesn't rain.)
We sincerely hope and insist that peaceful means should be used to solve the Taiwan issue...China has never committed to not taking nonpeaceful means to solve the Taiwan issue simply because such a commitment would make peaceful reunification impossible.
--Chen Defu, Chinese Embassy Press Counselor, letter to editor of N. Y. Times, 7/18/89, A20

As Hodgson (1885: 218) muttered gloomily a century ago, "Piled-up negatives prove easy stumbling-blocks." [This is the useful, if occasionally a bit prescriptive, Hodgson, W. B. (1885)  Errors in the Use of English.  New York:  Appleton.] Then I moved on to the effect of four negations, predictably overwhelming the poor language mechanism and resulting in a range of extremely unfortunate examples:

No one denies that a baby with a neural tube defect isn't a catastrophe, but...
Dr. Philip LaMastra, quoted in the New Haven Advocate, 8/19/81
I have never known another reciter of a speech who could avoid weakening the sentences in his mouth by not thinking of the one that was to come.
H. Cockburn, Memorials (1874), cited in Hodgson (1885: 219)

"Bernie produced what Bernie is supposed to produce", Smith said, "but I don't think, either, that you can single out Bernie as not a guy who is not part of the disappointment."
New York Rangers' general manager Neil Smith, declining (I think) to absolve star forward Bernie Nicholls for his play in the team's first-round playoff series loss, N. Y. Times, 4/15/91, C3

Based on such cases, I proposed the generalization "Quadruplex negatio ferblondiat," with the explanatory footnote:

For readers not familiar with the somewhat obscure Late Latin verb employed here, the standard pronunciation of this loanword is farblondzhet."

My paper contained a footnote relating this legal case, courtesy of  a possibly interesting legal application of Triplex Negatio Confundit:

[footnote 13]
Bryant ([English in the Law Courts, New York: Columbia U. Press] 1930: 264) cites a case from the Alabama state court in 1912 in which Aletha Allen, a 80-year-old deaf woman, was killed by a train after having been warned not to go onto the track, prompting her estate to sue the Central of Georgia Railway Company.  The original verdict was for the defendant, the jury finding the late Ms. Allen guilty of contributory negligence, but a new trial was granted because of an errant Triplex Negatio:

The charge to the jury had been that unless the jurors believed from the evidence that the engineer did not discover the peril of the woman in time to avoid injury [emphasis mine--LH], they must decide in favor of the defendant.  The higher court held that unless  meant "if not", the use of the double negative having the effect of making the charge predicate the defendant's right to an acquaintance [sic] based upon the fact that its engineer did see the dangerous position of Aletha Allen in time to prevent the injury.  The jury overlooked the grammatical inaccuracy, as the court did, and interpreted the charge as a correct proposition of the law.  Thus the court ordered that the original verdict be adhered to.

The decision was based on the interpretation of the intent.  The court did not intend to use a double negative; the jury, not realizing that a double negative was used, gave their verdict accordingly.

Thus the principle that Triplex Negatio Confundit is enshrined in the halls of justice, at least in Alabama.

In a subsequent email, Larry went into further etymological detail on ferblondiare:

This very useful term is a Late Latin verb borrowed from the Yiddish. As one web site (GantzehMegillah.com) puts it,

There are certain words in Yiddish which have no English equivalent - and more's the pity. One of my favorites is usually pronounced "far-BLUN-jit," and written "farblondzhet." Its majesty is owed to the fact that, in only three syllables, it describes people in situations that have spun totally out of control, well beyond the descriptive limits of chaos, confusion and emergency. Even the classic "SNAFU" and "FUBAR" of World War II and the "Chinese Fire Drill" of earlier vintage failed to embrace the full range of cataclysmic situations embraced by "farblondzhet."

I was curious about the reference to Jane Austen, attributed to a citation by Otto Jespersen: "There was none too poor or too remote not to feel an interest." That sounds like something Jane Austen might have written, at least in terms of its content, but where? Searches on Google and on Literature Online, surprisingly, come up empty.

I guess that "Jespersen 1917" would be one of the editions of J's seven-volume opus "A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles". [Update: but my guess is wrong -- it's "Negation in English". Still, see below.] Several versions of volume 4 (on Syntax) are available from the Internet Archive. A search turns up the cited sentence, on p. 455-456, and it turns out that it's not Jane Austen at all!

The crucial sequence is

| Austen P 133 he can have nothing to say to me that anybody need not hear [= that any- body may not hear; that it is necessary that nobody hears]
| NP 1899 there was none too poor or too remote not to feel an interest

Thus Jane was responsible (in Pride and Prejudice) for a sentence in which (Jespersen believed) the interaction of modality and negation went awry ("He can have nothing to say to me that any body need not hear") -- but "NP 1899" is Jespersen's abbreviation for (generic) "Newspaper in 1899", and so Jane is innocent of the "none too poor" sentence.

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 14, 2007 11:01 AM