Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Absence of Non-Overnegation

Posted by Neal on December 4, 2007

“Whew!” my wife said. “That’s something you get used to not smelling.” It was the second day of our weekend trip to Las Vegas, and we had just walked through another pocket of cigarette smoke on the casino floor. There’s been a ban on public indoor smoking in Ohio since May, and a local ban for longer than that in the area where we live, so we’d had plenty of time to get used to not smelling cigarette smoke. To tell you the truth, it hadn’t taken very long at all.

“No kidding,” I said. “So…

…you miss not smelling it?

“Uh…?” she answered.

Wow. I learned several years ago that for my wife, miss not [verb]-ing and miss [verb]-ing mean the same thing. But I’d wondered: If the context demanded it, could she could still get the compositional (i.e. literal) reading of miss not [verb]-ing? Some people can. There’s me, of course. And in Mark Liberman’s post from 2004 (which I linked to in my last post on this topic), he found that two out of ten randomly selected examples had compositional miss-not. To Liberman’s non-overnegations, I’ll add this one, which I found in the book I’ve been reading to Doug and Adam at bedtime:

The mood in their meeting that night was subdued: no bickering, no laughter, only a general feeling of grim resolve. Now that the children finally knew some things, they all rather missed not knowing them.
(Trenton Lee Stewart, The Mysterious Benedict Society, 2007, p. 253)

In fact, it was that example that had put me on the lookout for other situations where compositional miss-not would make sense, so that I could so smoothly and naturally work it into my conversation during the weekend. Yet even in that perfect context, the smoothly and naturally worked-in compositional miss-not crashed and burned when my wife tried to parse it. When she read the draft of this very posting, the sentence still struck her as a complete non sequitur in the conversation about cigarette smoke. But if we’re talking about, say, the homemade bread her mom used to make every week, the bread that smelled so good and which she hasn’t smelled for so long, then You miss not smelling it makes perfect sense to her. And, she adds, so does You miss smelling it. To express that someone prefers a former state of affairs, in which they would not do a particular thing, to the current state of affairs in which they do do that particular thing, she just has to find another means, like the workaround I just used, or by saying something like what she actually said on the casino floor.

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6 Responses to “Absence of Non-Overnegation”

  1. Glen said

    Man, I’m a prescriptivist on this one. If smart people like your wife are now unable to comprehend the compositional/literal meaning of “miss not smelling cigarette smoke,” then I say over-negation has gone too far!

  2. Neal said

    Well, perhaps I was too hasty in concluding that she could never get the compositional reading. After all, it was on the basis of one event, and looking back on it, maybe I didn’t work it into the conversation so smoothly after all. To wit, I said, “No kidding,” which means I agree with her, which implies I must have understood what she said. But if I already understood it and even agreed with it, why then go back and ask for verification by saying, “So you miss not smelling it?” The conversation in that regard was not natural. Also, she didn’t say anything about the example from the book, but that one had not emphasized, so maybe she can get the compositional meaning only when it’s clear that the speaker is focusing on the negation and therefore doesn’t intend the sloppy/idiomatic meaning.

  3. Ellen said

    Am I not reading this all closely enough? She said “That’s something you get used to not smelling.” She might usually say “miss not…” but she didn’t here. What she did say here makes sense to me. She had gotten really used to going out and not smelling cigarettes in the air. And then smelling them again made her realize how accustomed she’d become to not having to. Also, if you moved to Vegas and then started smelling cigarettes but you could still remember the days of not having to smell them, I could see “I miss not smelling them” being a reasonable phrase.

  4. Neal said

    Right, what she said with get used to made perfect sense. It was my rephrasing with miss that fell flat. Its compositional meaning makes sense in the same way as the get used to not smelling sentence did, but the only reading your sister-in-law got was the idiomatic “miss smelling” reading, which of course makes no sense and therefore led to her confusion.

  5. Viola said

    I can see the obtuse question mark above your wife’s head as you slipped in the “miss” question! Like, “Okay, are you putting words in my mouth?” I say that simply because both you and your wife’s phrases have two complete different meanings, with the exception of the over-negation. We do this all the time in conversations with spouses without even realizing it. I have to agree with Glen that over-negation can be extremely confusing due to the fact that human nature will immediately look at the “not’s, no’s” and so forth and focus on the negative rather than the true meaning of the conversation. Your wife is not average by any means, and I applaud her for her quick-witted nature in over-looking the over-negation to the real meaning of the conversation when it turned a different direction.

  6. […] of my earliest posts was on the strange negation in the miss not doing construction, and I wrote about it again in 2007. Now Mark Liberman has a post on Language Log on the history of this […]

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