February 08, 2008

Universal forgetfulness

Mitt Romney has ended his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. And with the video segment "Mittpocalypse Now", Josh Marshall has said goodbye to a string of Mitt-based neologisms that included "Mittmentum", "Mitt-nertia", "Mitt-sheviks", "Mitt-ptonite", " Mittstasis" and some more -- I forget all of them.

Did you have any trouble with that last phrase? Some do, most don't. But really, it's interesting and somewhat suprising that people often use I forget all of them to mean "it's not the case that I remember all of them". On the basis of a quick scan of the web, I reckon that the phrase gets that reading (what a semanticist would call "wide scope of negation") about half the time:

Miss Conduct's Blog, 2/7/2008: Another entertaining food-company name, which I similarly encountered walking to work many years ago, is the Puritan Ice Cream Company. That may not turn a native New Englander's head, but it sure sounded odd to this Midwesterner. I started a contest with some of my friends come up with the best Puritan ice cream flavors--I forget all of them, but some of the better entries were Straight & Narrow Rocky Road, Chocolate Mather, Sorbet in the Hands of an Angry God, and of course Preachers & Cream.)

Heralddk.ca: Many articles have pointed at other cities and the success of downtown arenas there — places like Vancouver and Columbus and Denver and ... well I forget all of them, but there's quite a few.

In the rest of the examples, the phrase means, well, "I forget all of them". In this reading, a semanticist might say that the quantifier all takes wider scope than the negation that's implicit in forget, i.e. for all x, I forget x:

Secret Agent Mom: I'm resisting the urge to expand the list, not because I haven't been thinking of lots of fascinating new things about me, but because the minute I get in front of a keyboard, I forget all of them.

"Shadows of the Pine Forest" (The Southern Literary Messenger, 1851, p. 623: "All my life," said she, "is bound up with the old house and grounds -- yonder I played, there i sat down and cried: many mournful things have happened here, but I forget all of them and only remember the pleasant part."

The key difference is whether you forget every single one of the things under discussion (that's the all...not meaning), or you forget some and remember others (the not...all meaning).

Why is it surprising for the negation to take wide scope, sometimes, in phrases like "I forget all of them"? Well, if you turn forget into not remember, the rest is easy. "I don't remember all of them" normally and even inevitably means "it's not the case that I remember all of them", and not "I don't remember any of them". (Here I hope that even James Kilpatrick will agree with me.)

But forget isn't really just an alternative form of "don't remember". For example, you can't say "I forget any of them."

And construing   "I negVerb all of them" as "it's not the case that I Verb all of them" doesn't work for most other implicitly negative verbs. I can't interpret "I dislike all of them" as "it's not the case that I like all of them" -- and a quick scan of instances on the web suggests that others agree with me. Similarly, "I missed all of them" doesn't mean "it's not the case that I caught all of them", and "failed all the tests" doesn't mean "didn't pass all the tests".

Perhaps the trick with forget is that the expected reading for all x, I forget x is pragmatically odd -- it suggests mentally enumerating things that you claim not to remember well enough to enumerate. And there are some cases that go the other way, where an overt negation binds so tightly to a verb that it winds up taking narrow scope, e.g. "didn't notice all the signs".

There's a large literature on this subject, but I don't know most of it, and forget all the rest. I'm sure that kind readers will remind me.

[Hat tip to Jan Freeman for "I forget all of them".]

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 8, 2008 09:17 AM