Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Overnegation vs. Multiple Negation

Posted by Neal on October 17, 2004

An article by Tamara Jones of The Washington Post appeared in our paper this week, about the quiet infiltration of trivia game shows by former college quiz bowl participants. One of these guys, named Eric Hillemann, was quoted:

Two weeks wouldn’t go by that there wasn’t someone I didn’t know on [Who Wants to be a Millionaire].

Having read the posts on Language Log about overnegation (for example, this one here), my sensors immediately went off: One, two, three negations! There was a good chance that the speaker had lost track of exactly what he wanted to negate, and put in one too many nots. Let’s see… He means that there was usually at least one person on the show that he knew. So in other words, he meant that two weeks wouldn’t go by that there wasn’t someone he did know on the show.

As I went through the logic, I wondered how overnegation was different from the multiple negation of nonstandard English, as in:

I didn’t do nothing to nobody.

In both cases, you have multiple negations which cannot be taken strictly compositionally if you want to get the speaker’s intended meaning. But even when I accept the above multiple negation as a grammatical (though nonstandard) sentence, the overnegation from Eric Hillemann still seems like a true mistake. Why is that? I’m guessing it has something to do with the fact that the negatives in the overnegation are each in their own clause (two of them in relative clauses), while those in the multiple negation are all in the same clause. When they’re in separate clauses, each negation has to be processed independently of the others, which leads to the unintended reading when there is one too many.

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2 Responses to “Overnegation vs. Multiple Negation”

  1. Anonymous said

    I’m not trying to be anonymous, I just didn’t wanna register. This is an interesting one. Multiple negation is common cross-linguistically, but overnegation is confusing. It seems that more than two cases of “sentential negation” yields an (almost?) uninterpretable sentence. You’re right on when you talked about processing. I also think you’re right about losing track. (They do, after all, go hand in hand.) After one or two negations he forgot what exactly he was trying to negate in the first place.

  2. Michael said

    How about this one:
    “There wasn’t a day that wouldn’t go by that there wasn’t no one I wouldn’t never misunderstand.”

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