Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

If It’s Not for Everyone, It’s Not for Anyone

Posted by Neal on July 21, 2006

Once again, I find myself wondering exactly what James J. Kilpatrick is thinking. He begins this week’s column with:

This was a headline in USA Today on April 28: “Mass Transit Not an Option for All Drivers.”

Did you wince? Roll your eyes? Did you groan? Then you have the soul of a grammarian, and will go to heaven when you die…. There you will lecture the seraphim on the distinction between “all” and “not all,” and you will explain to them that if mass transit is not an option for “all” drivers, it cannot be an option for even one driver.

So in other words, of the two scope possibilities for the negative not and the universal quantifier all listed below, Kilpatrick judges only the second one to be grammatical:

  1. not(forall driver X, mass transit an option for X)
  2. forall driver X, not(mass transit an option for X)

I just don’t understand why Kilpatrick is making this complaint. I would be sympathetic if he wanted to have a strictly wide-scope interpretation for a universal quantifier in a sentence such as Everyone can’t go, which I’ve written about before. Though I recognize that many people’s grammars allow the reading with the wide-scope negation (i.e., “it is not the case that everyone can go”), I prefer that thought to be phrased as the less ambiguous “Not everyone can go,” leaving Everyone can’t go free to mean “No one can go.” I’ll concede that I could imagine someone saying to me, “Everyone can’t go isn’t so ambiguous, because if you really wanted to express that for each person X, X can’t go, you’d just say, ‘No one can go.’ And that leaves Everyone can’t go free and clear to mean ‘Not everyone can go.'” In that case, I’d award the tiebreaker points to the fact that having every take wider scope than not mirrors the linear order of every and not in the sentence. That is, a scope-taking item that appears earlier in the sentence takes scope over later ones, which is the default way of interpreting relative scope in English. And I’m pretty sure Kilpatrick would be with me on this one: He’d say, “if every person cannot go, then not even one can go.”

But in Mass transit [is] not an option for everyone, the most natural reading for me — I, who complain about Everyone can’t go — is the one the headline writer intended, the one with the wide-scoping negation, i.e. option 1 in the list above. I can get Kilpatrick’s reading, but only with only with a seriously high pitch on all drivers. Absent that, I figure the speaker would have said, “Mass transit is not an option for any driver(s)” in order to get a narrow-scoping negation. Notice that the intended interpretation is the one in which the relative scoping of not and all reflects their linear order, so whatever problem Kilpatrick has with this sentence, it can’t be the same problem I had (and thought he would have) with Everyone can’t go.

So why doesn’t Kilpatrick like the wide-scoping negation here? Is it just that in any sentence with a negation and a universal quantifier, he wants the universal quantifier to outscope the negation? Is he seriously saying that for him, I didn’t eat everything means the same thing as I didn’t eat anything or I ate nothing? In that case, how would he express the wide-scope reading of I didn’t eat everything? I guess he’d have to say, “It is not the case that I ate everything.” No; his language can’t be that different from the one you and I speak.

Maybe Kilpatrick’s rule is that in a negated sentence involving a universal quantifier, the negation must be fused with the quantifier in order to take scope over it. Thus, Everyone didn’t go would be Not everyone went (OK, so far, so good), and Mass transit is not an option for all drivers would be… Mass transit is an option for not all drivers? I’m not sure that’s even grammatical. Not for all drivers is mass transit an option? Grammatical, yes, but the wrong register for everyday speaking. And I challenge you to make a headline out of it.

UPDATE: If you haven’t just come here by following the link from Mark Liberman’s recent posting on Language Log, read it now for some historical corroboration of my wide-scoping-negation intuition. Also, James Kilpatrick is sticking to his story; below is his response to my polite query as to why he didn’t approve of the headline:

Dear Mr. Whitman –
If you instantly grasped the meaning of that headline, “Mass transit not an option for all drivers,” your cognitive skills are better than mine.
Cordially, James J. Kilpatrick

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9 Responses to “If It’s Not for Everyone, It’s Not for Anyone”

  1. Wow, how about that. I can’t get all scoping over negation in that sentence, no matter what I do, and “not for all drivers is mass transit an option” sounds like Yoda-speak.

  2. Scope of negation is frequently a difficult topic for non-native speakers, especially if block language is involved. Personally, I find the headline perfectly ambiguous.

  3. Roberto Aníbal Bonaldi said

    Under the title Sunday Styles it can be read
    “Republicans and Democrats agree to not disagree.”(NYT, 10/29/06)
    When you go to the article it says “Among friends, Republicans and Democrats agree not to disagree.”
    Was it a typo or is it right in both ways?

  4. Neal said

    Either way is OK. Most of the time, there is no difference between not to vs. to not, except that some frown on to not because they don’t approve of “splitting infinitives.” In some cases, though, there’s a difference. For example, “My job is not to teach you how to read” is ambiguous between meaning “It is not the case that my job is to teach you to read,” and “My job is to avoid teaching you to read.” But “My job is to not teach you how to read” can have only the second meaning.

  5. […] after reading Jan Freeman’s column from last Sunday, you can find the post she was mentioning here. Explore posts in the same categories: […]

  6. […] The trouble is that Kilpatrick’s rule doesn’t work every time. (And when I say it doesn’t work every time, I mean that it is not the case that it works every time, not that it never works.) He is assuming, […]

  7. […] fact is that — see discussion by Neal Whitman, Jan Freeman, and three postings by Mark Liberman on Language Log — that in negated […]

  8. […] mused on KR on Language Log (here, here, and here), disputing Kilpatrick’s claim, as did Neal Whitman and Jan Freeman. All three writers maintained that wide-scope negation was by far the most natural […]

  9. […] Neal Whitman and I ignored the “nanosecond of uncertainty” business, since a literal application of this idea would put pretty much all of the English language off limits. […]

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