December 21, 2005

Negation, over- and under-

Anything amiss in Monday's installment of "Hagar the Horrible"? Well, other than the fact that — in the words of Josh Fruhlinger at The Comics Curmudgeon — "Hagar and Lucky Eddie are Odin-revering pagans and wouldn't care about this so-called 'Christmas' anyway"? Readers of the Comics Curmudgeon blog were quick to point out another problem. Hagar says he misses not having a nine-to-five job, when the punchline, such as it is, suggests that the opposite is true: he misses having a nine-to-five job (and the Christmas party that goes with it). Hagar's usage is a very common overnegation, not just among anachronistic English-speaking, Christmas-celebrating Viking marauders. Last year Mark Liberman did a quick Google survey of "miss not VERBing" and found that the vast majority of such constructions are instances of overnegation.

Another apparent overnegation was recently spotted by Steve at Language Hat. It appears in a column by Leonard Quart in the Dec. 16 edition of the Berkshire Eagle, in which Quart compares contemporary Brooklyn to days gone by. In one section, Quart describes the imminent trendification of the neighborhood dubbed "Dumbo" (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass):

But the painter who said to me that he liked the fact that Dumbo is relatively undeveloped also knows that it will soon go the way of SoHo.
Dumbo will ultimately become so dominated by boutiques and condos that young painters like himself will no longer be unable to afford to live there.

The word "unable" is italicized in the original, which confuses matters even further. A couple of Language Hat commenters suggested that the italicization is evidence that Quart intended the double negation, in an attempt to make a (rather obscure) joke about painters needing to be in neighborhoods where they're unable to afford to live. I commented that I doubted Quart was making an intentional joke, given that "(will) no longer be unable to VERB" is an overnegation about as common as "miss not VERBing." Some examples provided by Google:

If a spring is exposed to that frequency as the motors rpm's increase, the vibration will rapidly build up to such an extent that the spring will no longer be unable to control its own motion. (link)

As the population ages, many amongst us will find that eyesight deteriorating and we will no longer be unable to drive as safely. (link)

If you earn 1 negative feedback your account may be suspended depending on the circumstances, and you will no longer be unable to list or bid. (link)

You will no longer be unable to add items to your Store unless you delete existing items or upgrade your account to a larger item limit. (link)

Most of my work is using these images and lyrics, so I regret that I will no longer be unable to post things here. (link)

Another commenter on the Language Hat posting was Martin Langeveld, who happens to work for the Berkshire Eagle's publishing company. Langeveld provided an insider's perspective on how the "no longer unable" construction might have entered Quart's column:

It seems to me this and the rest of the Google citations for "not ... unable" are typos rather than new usage memes. In other words, it's an artifact of the word-processor: Quart starts to write that young artists "will no longer be able to afford to live there," changes his mind to say, "will be unable to afford to live there," which sounds better, and then forgets to delete "no longer". Hand-writing, or even typing on a typewriter, you'd be more likely to remember the deletion. I see this kind of thing in news copy all the time. The languagelog example like "don't fail to miss it" are a different thing.

I agree wholeheartedly that unintentional overnegations have flourished in the age of cut-and-paste word processing. But I don't think that these examples are qualitatively very different from the other cases of overnegation catalogued here in the past. Even if we choose to call them "typos" rather than "usage memes," the question still remains: why are such overextensions of negation so easy to fail to miss? Quart's column presumably passed under the careful eyes of editorial-page editors and copy editors, and yet the overnegation stood. (Or perhaps the editors assumed that the sentence was indeed intended to be a joke of some sort.)

As we well know, all sorts of goofs get past even our most august journalistic bastions, so it should be no surprise that unintentional undernegation can also slip by. A Dec. 11 article in the Los Angeles Times about shock-jock Howard Stern's move to satellite radio included this sentence:

As for the medium he leaves behind, Stern not surprisingly is optimistic about its future.

A week later, the paper issued the following correction (as reported on Regret the Error, a blog that revels in such apologies):

An article about radio personality Howard Stern last Sunday mistakenly said that he is optimistic about the future of broadcast radio. It should have said he is not optimistic.

What happened here? I suspect that the offending sentence was the result of the type of cut-and-paste carelessness described by Langeveld. Perhaps the sentence originally read, "Stern is not optimistic about its future," and then when "not surprisingly" was inserted, the second not was lost in the shuffle. But it's doubtful that the sentence "Stern is not surprisingly not optimistic about its future" would have survived the editing process. For euphony's sake, one of the not's would have to go: either it would end up reading "Stern is unsurprisingly not optimistic" or "Stern is not surprisingly pessimistic."

The difficulty that formal written English has with double not's is perhaps a clue to how this error was allowed to pass. If the sentence that made it to print is read quickly, the single not seems like it could be pulling double duty, negating both surprisingly and optimistic. Formal English syntax doesn't really work that way, but it might be one unreflective method of dealing with the discordant double not in a construction like "not surprisingly not optimistic."

Something similar is apparently at work in another case of undernegation previously examined here in exquisite (or excruciating?) detail: still unpacked, when used to mean still ununpacked. (See installments 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6, as well as commentary from Language Hat and the Boston Globe's Jan Freeman.) On the level of the individual word, the doubled negation represented by the two un- prefixes of ununpacked is, for most speakers, morphologically ill-formed. (This is despite the fact that the two prefixes can be construed as semantically distinct; if the first un- is taken to mean 'not' and the second indicates the reversal or undoing of a process, then ununpacked is understood as 'not yet having the process of packing reversed or undone.') Geoff Nunberg suggested that the simplification of ununpacked to unpacked constitutes "an idiosyncratic sort of haplology," another way of saying that the semantic content of the disallowed double prefix unun- gets packed into a single un-.

In the case of "not surprisingly not optimistic" inadvertently getting changed to "not surprisingly optimistic," the undernegation doesn't resolve an ill-formed construction, merely one that lacks euphony. Since this sort of proximate use of two not's is avoided in formal English, a writer or speaker might decide (without much reflection) that one will do the trick, just as one un- suffices for still unpacked.

This is somewhat different from another type of undernegation: the much-maligned transformation of couldn't care less into could care less (see this post and earlier commentary linked therein). Could care less was originally considered a negative polarity item, requiring a negative trigger like not or hardly. But over time it developed its own negative force for some speakers through what John Lawler has called "negation by association," thus obviating the need for an additional negative trigger.

A similar impulse may be at play in both types of undernegation, however: the desire to simplify perceived "double negatives." The aversion towards stigmatized "double negatives" is particularly strong when the same item is repeated twice (such as not or un- in the above examples). But it might also help explain the initial shift in polarity of could care less, based on a hypercorrection to resolve the cooccurrence of a negative trigger like not and the negative-sounding less in the idiomatic phrase.

Of course, this explanation has its limits, as not all "double negatives" get resolved through undernegation. On the contrary, as the many cases of overnegation demonstrate, speakers and writers of formal English sometimes pile up negations exuberantly. (Mark Liberman called this "the temptation of overnegation," explicable either as a confusion over the resulting polarity of multiple negations, or as a reversion to the negative-concord patterns of various colloquial English dialects.) The trick, then, is to try to determine which cases of cooccuring negations are identified as "double negatives" (and thus stigmatized), and which pass under the linguistic radar, to the extent that they are tolerated or even preferred in the seemingly illogical cases of overnegation. Not an easy task, not at all.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at December 21, 2005 06:02 AM