Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

An Overnegation and a Zeugma

Posted by Neal on August 24, 2007

Here are a couple of catches from Glen that I’ve been meaning to write about. First, a sentence he noticed in a post by his co-blogger Tom Bell. It’s one of Bell’s many posts about the law school rankings in US News and World Report, and the sentence is quoted from Greg C. Anderson, Director of Career Opportunities and Development at Northern Illinois University College of Law:

Given the amount of information disclosed to USNWR in the survey, I find it hard to believe that errors such as ours are not uncommon.

Wait, doesn’t he mean it’s easy to believe these errors are not uncommon? It’s another case of overnegation. By itself, the not plus theun- is fairly easy to handle: These errors are not uncommon. Packed inside the hard to believe… phrase, though, it’s tough to untangle. It’s not worth the trouble, either, because when you’ve done it, you end up with a meaning that is clearly opposite of what Anderson meant. In one of the earlier Language Log posts on this topic, Mark Liberman says:

The extra negations are sometimes explicit negative words (like not and no) and sometimes implicit parts of words with negative meanings (like refute, fail, avoid and ignore).

In this case, it seems that hard is a word with implicit negative meaning: “not easy”. But why isn’t easy an implicitly negative word meaning “not difficult”? Why isn’t I find it easy to believe that these errors are not uncommon just as hard to untangle as its counterpart with hard? I’m sure this has been written about, but not wanting to search the literature right now, I’ll just speculate: If someones judges something to be easy to do, it’s more likely that they will do it; if they judge that it’s hard to do, it’s more likely that they willnot do it. And as a check to make sure I’m not just calling hard an implicit negative because I’m expecting it to fit Liberman’s generalization, let’s see if it allows negative polarity items (NPIs):

  • It’s {hard/*easy} to get any help around here.

  • It’s {hard/*easy} to give a damn about what happens to Scarlett.
  • It’s {hard/*easy} to find cheap gas anymore.
    [Assuming your dialect does not have positive anymore.]

The next item is from an August 4 post from The Agitator:

A 17-year-old gets arrested and a $1,000 bond for failing to show at a court appearance for…a seatbelt violation.

Here we have gets acting as an auxiliary verb in the passive verb phrase gets arrested, and as an ordinary transitive verb meaning “receive” in the verb phrase gets … a $1,000 bond. Pretty weird, to my ears. How does it sound to you?

2 Responses to “An Overnegation and a Zeugma”

  1. Bob said

    I loves me the zeugmas! (Or is it zeugmae?)

  2. Neal said

    That would be zeugmata (Greek neuter plural) if you want the original-language morphology. But if zeugma is sufficiently English for you, then the English plural zeugmas will work fine. Or is it syllepsis; I’ve never been too good at distinguishing between them zeugma and syllepsis– I suspect because the difference (if any) is not consistently clear across the definitions that are out there.

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