Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Un-, Non- and Not

Posted by Neal on August 30, 2012

When we watched the Olympics opening ceremonies earlier this month, Adam got his first look at Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean character. He liked it enough that we watched the movie Bean with him and Doug a few days later. I have never seen Adam laugh so hard as when Mr. Bean’s attempted repair of Whistler’s painting Arrangement in Grey and Black was revealed. Some time later Adam referred to Rowan Atkinson by his character’s name, and Doug got on his case about it. Adam defended his choice by remarking:

Rowan Atkinson is an uninteresting name. Mr. Bean is.

Using my ordinary rules for expanding out VP ellipsis, I look for the thing earlier in the sentence that can appear as the complement of is, and end up with this:

Rowan Atkinson is an uninteresting name. Mr. Bean is [an uninteresting name].

Huh? That’s no good. If Adam had intended to say both names were uninteresting, I would have expected a too at the end, and maybe even an and connecting the two clauses. For me, one way of expressing Adam’s thought would be:

Rowan Atkinson is an uninteresting name. Mr. Bean isn’t [an uninteresting name].

But it’s hard to process those two negations, isn’t [uninteresting], one of which is unspoken. More likely, I would have said:

Rowan Atkinson is not an interesting name. Mr. Bean is [an interesting name].

So in Adam’s sentence, the negative prefix un-, which should be stuck tight to the adjective interesting, has wiggled loose to roam its clause at large, as if it were the free-standing negator not. How strange. Of course, we all know that Rowan Atkinson is the more interesting name, regardless of Adam’s statement.

Not long after that, I heard the same thing happen with another negative prefix. Someone on the news on the radio was talking about super PACs and the unlimited amounts of money that are flooding this year’s political campaigns, and he mentioned

groups that purport to be nonpartisan but often are

Again, going by the usual rules, we get nonsense:

groups that purport to be nonpartisan but often are [nonpartisan]

For that to make sense in isolation, the but would have to be an and, and of course even that would make no sense as a description of the current political funding scene. What the speaker meant was,

groups that purport to be nonpartisan but often aren’t [nonpartisan]

Once again, it would have been hard to process those two negatives, one of which isn’t even spoken. He could have also phrased his thought like this:

groups that claim they are not partisan but often are [partisan]

That sentence took a little more tweaking in order to turn the non into a not, and I could well imagine that the speaker began with a common-enough phrase, purport to be, and then just couldn’t find a smooth way to finish the thought in the time he had. So now I wonder: Were Adam’s and the pundit’s sentences mistakes, things they would not have said if they had had a few more seconds to plan their utterances, or are negative prefixes truly free to behave this way in their grammars? How about in yours?

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4 Responses to “Un-, Non- and Not

  1. ruakh said

    In March, I wrote:

    > The change itself is unobjectionable, but this means of making it is.

    I’d consider that to be wrong — so, it was a “mistake” — except that I didn’t notice it until someone else commented on it.

  2. Jonathon said

    Those constructions certainly aren’t grammatical in my idiolect, though I can figure out what they mean after a second.

  3. the ridger said

    Again we see that context is king in negations. Because they’re CONFUSING

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