December 22, 2007

I'll teach you to undernegate!

Caught on television yesterday:

That'll teach you to blow your quarters on the arcade.  [Walker, Texas Ranger episode "The Covenant"]

conveying 'that'll teach you not to blow your quarters on the arcade'.  Undernegation, of a sort we haven't seen on Language Log since a brief mention in a 2004 posting by Chris Potts on "negation-indifferent items".

It's hard to get a feel for how common will teach someone to 'will teach someone not to' is, because references to literal teaching are so frequent.  Undernegative teach takes a complement VP denoting an action that the speaker views as undesirable, but there's no way to search for such VPs in general.  You can, however, search for some specific VPs of this sort, for instance talk back 'reply defiantly or insolently'; {"teach X to talk back"}, for various pronouns X, gets a modest number of hits, among them:

I'll teach you to talk back to me. You've got too big for your place for the last time. I've been taking too much from you, but I ain't doing it no more.  [Erskine Caldwell] (link)

I'll teach you to talk back to your StepMother, I'll teach you to talk back to me. From now on you'll do whatever we tell you with no back talk, ...  (link)

"That will teach him to talk back", Banzi muttered.  (link)

That'll teach her to talk back to me!  (link)

Guess that'll teach me to talk back to a couple Diablo fiends.  (link)

(The subject of teach in these examples is either that or I.)

Presumably, undernegative teach arises from "negation by association", as in the account Mark Liberman gave for undernegative could care less some time ago.  That is, teach by itself comes to be seen as a sufficient sign of negativity, and the not becomes dispensable.  There's no easy way to gauge the relative frequency of undernegative teach versus explicitly negative teach, but with the VP talk back, it looks like the undernegative is ahead.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at December 22, 2007 12:17 PM