Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Malnegation in This American Life

Posted by Neal on July 2, 2009

Don’t read this post unless you’ve already listened to this week’s episode of This American Life, or you don’t care about hearing it. For a few more days, it can still be downloaded for free here; after that, it’ll cost a couple of dollars.

The final story in Episode #384, Fall Guy, is from Shalom Auslander. He tells a story that is sad and sick, yet disturbingly funny. He tells about how, for reasons of both expedience and petty vengeance, he takes to secretly peeing on the floor near his diaper-wearing, Alzheimer’s-afflicted grandmother’s bed, and eventually on other areas around the house, knowing she’ll get blamed. But in a surprise development, he comes home one day to find that his parents have actually blamed his dog Noodles (whom they have never liked) for the house smelling like urine, and have taken him to the pound. Auslander is anguished and outraged. He says:

It wasn’t just that they had punished the wrong person. It was that they had punished the wrong wrong person. Sure, okay, yes, I was peeing on the floor. But Grandma was peeing in her pants. The only one not peeing where he was supposed to was Noodles.

Those embedded negations’ll getcha: What he clearly meant to say was: The only one not not peeing where he was supposed to was Noodles.

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5 Responses to “Malnegation in This American Life

  1. Australian Lass said

    “The only one not peeing where he wasn’t supposed to…”, perhaps? Quite a funny story, though, and an interesting linguistic point. I always stumble over sentences that would seem to want two “thats”, as well.

  2. Uly said

    Or possibly “the only one not peeing where he was NOT supposed to”, which keeps you from having to say not not.

  3. Neal said

    Australian Lass and Uly: Good point.

  4. michael said

    and in fact auslander does say “…wasn’t supposed to…”

    on my recent trip i caught up on all my un-listened-to This American Life episodes. i knew there was one in there that you had mentioned, and i put off reading this post until i’d heard them all. but i couldn’t remember which episode you had mentioned, so i listened to 5 entire episodes waiting for some error to jump out at me. it was almost too much pressure.

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