Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Succeeds at Neither Entertaining Nor Informing

Posted by Neal on February 26, 2015

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Through June, July, and August, Doug complained about his summer reading assignment, a book called Strange As This Weather Has Been, by an author with the unusual name of Ann Pancake. He hated it. It was a story about mountaintop-removal coal mining in Appalachia, told through an erratic combination of first-person and third-person narrative, with a plot that only started to move in the last few chapters of the book. Maybe it wasn’t about plot, I suggested. Maybe Pancake was just trying to give us a picture of the effects of this kind of mining through a character study of a family affected by it. Maybe so, Doug said, but none of the characters were likable people. And if she was trying to give him a lot of information about mountaintop-removal mining, in particular the Buffalo Creek disaster that was continually alluded to, he learned more about both those topics from their Wikipedia entries than he did from the entire book.

When it was time for him to write the report, he poured his frustration into his title:

Succeeds at Neither Entertaining Nor Informing.

Well-primed by Doug’s repeated complaints about the book, I told him his thesis sounded great. By that time, I was reading the book, too, fulfilling my promise to read the whole damn thing myself if he read it first. Doug’s criticisms were on the mark. In addition, the author had a disconcerting habit of having her characters use verbs (such as go) and adjectives (such as wet) as nouns without any morphological change (a go, a wet). Trying too hard to be creative with the language, and ending up just distracting and annoying the reader instead.

That was in August. In January, I came across an early printout of Doug’s paper in a pile of paper to recycle. Without the priming of Doug’s complaints, this time I read the sentence differently. This time, Ann Pancake succeeded! She succeeded at avoiding two things: entertaining, and informing.

I’ve often blogged about different, kinds, of ambiguity, here. But I was surprised to find that I couldn’t fit this ambiguity into one of the categories. I still haven’t quite nailed down where the ambiguity is coming from, but I’ll record some of my observations.

I’ll represent the meaning Doug intended like so:

NOT(succeed(entertain))(ann) & NOT(succeed(inform))(ann)

And the second meaning that I got, like this:

succeed(NOT(entertain) & NOT(inform))(ann)

One thing I notice is that I’ve pulled a fast one with the NOT. In the earlier translation, it was negating an entire proposition about SOMEONE succeeding. Here, I just have it negating individual verbs. Somewhere along the way, I’ll have to figure out what NOT means when applied to a verb instead of a proposition in my system.

The fact that I’m dealing with verb forms seems to be essential. Replace them with, say, prepositional phrases, and the ambiguity goes away. For example:

She succeeds neither at work nor at school.
NOT(succeed(work)(ann)) & NOT(succeed(school)(ann))

This sentence can’t mean that she succeeds at something that is neither work nor school. It can’t mean, for example, that she succeeds at love.

The ambiguity also disappears if instead of the double-barreled negation of neither…nor, we have the single negation of not:

She succeeds at not entertaining.

Now the only reading we get is the funny one, and once again I’m doing some funny business with the NOT by applying it to just a verb. If we want to get the reading in which someone fails, we have to use a negation suitable for present-tense verbs, i.e. doesn’t:

She doesn’t succeed at entertaining.

On the other hand, the ambiguity remains if we replace the correlative conjunction neither…nor with both…and. It’s not as obvious a difference as the difference between succeeding and not succeeding, but one reading is that she succeeds at entertaining, and she also succeeds at informing, while the other is that she succeeds at doing both those things at once:

She succeeds at both entertaining and informing.
succeed(entertain)(ann) & succeed(inform)(ann)
succeed(entertain & inform)(ann)

The same kind of ambiguity comes with either … or and even not … but.

Hopefully, I’ll have further analysis to present here in the near future.

5 Responses to “Succeeds at Neither Entertaining Nor Informing”

  1. Ran said

    > Replace them with, say, prepositional phrases, and the ambiguity goes away.

    Indeed; even “Succeeds Neither at Entertaining Nor at Informing” eliminates the ambiguity.

    According to this Language Hat comment-thread, a similar ambiguity recently made the rounds in the Russophone Twittersphere. The logistics arm of the Russian army¹ adopted the motto «Никто лучше нас», meaning “Nobody is better than us”. As Hat explains:

    > Like its English equivalent, it can be interpreted as meaning “(even) nobody is better than us”; there have been many amusing variants.

    So, using your notation, it’s intended to mean “NOT(better(us)(somebody))”, but can be taken to mean “better(us)(NOT(somebody))”.

    I’ve never really thought about it before, but it’s strange that the scope of the negative semantics can rise above the scope of the negative syntax, both in English and apparently in Russian. (And in French, if we ignore ne: it’s generally dropped in everyday speech anyway, which presumably means that it’s not really what’s carrying the negative force.)

    That doesn’t happen at all in Hebrew; in Hebrew you’d say “לא מצליחה לא לשעשע ולא לחנך” /’lo ma.tsli’xa ‘lo lə.sha.a’she.a və’lo lə.xa’nex/ “not succeed-fem.sing.pres. not entertain-inf. and-not educate-inf.” for your example and “אף אחד לא יותר טוב מאתנו” /’af e’xad ‘lo jo’ter ‘tov me.i’ “even one not more good than-us” for the Russian one.

    Spanish seems to be like Hebrew in this regard, in that a negative word after the verb does not create a negation with scope over the verb (so instead you have to put a no before the verb, and use negative concord: “no tiene éxito ni en divertir ni en informar”). It differs from Hebrew in that a negative word before the verb does have this scope (so e.g. “nadie es mejor que nosotros”, not *”nadie no es mejor que nosotros” — but “no es nadie mejor que nosotros” is fine), but I’m guessing there’s some other way to account for that . . .

    (Footnote: 1. The relevant comment in the Hat thread actually says that the entire army adopted the motto, but as far as I can tell from other sources, that’s not the case. I don’t speak Russian, though, and may be missing something.)

  2. I enjoyed your post right up to the point where you said that you found his paper on the recycling pile. At that point, I was sure that I was at the climax of your story. What did the teacher think of his book report which was wholly negative about the assigned book? I was dying to know. Surely, the article had led up to this point…. As it turns out, there was no reveal. My an-tic-a-pa-tion was in vain. It seems that linguisticians are attuned to language nuances and other subtleties but they don’t pander to the lay audience’s interest in knowing the end of a good story….Did the teacher like Doug’s book report or was the teacher annoyed by his lack of reverence for a published book? Us readers would like an answer….

    • Neal said

      Oh, yeah, I forgot to come back to the starting point in my conclusion! Sorry, I forgot one of my basic conclusion techniques. Yeah, he got an A.

  3. Michael Watts said

    negation scope ambiguity appears in simpler sentences:

    He doesn’t want to come.

    is the standard way to represent NOT(want(come)(him)) and want(NOT(come))(him).

    • Neal said

      Your general point is true; one of my earliest blog posts was about a biology test in high school in which the question “which type can they not have” was supposed to be interpreted as both NOT(POSSIBLE(have))) and POSSIBLE(NOT(have)).

      However, I think your specific example is more of a pragmatic thing. In other words, I think “He doesn’t want to come” has only the NOT(want) meaning as far as the compositional semantics goes, and the usual intended meaning of “want(NOT)” arises via some kind of standard implicature. In other words, which is more likely: that he has no desire one way or the other, or that he wants to not-come? I’m sure this kind of thing is covered at length somewhere in Horn’s Natural History of Negation

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