Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Negation’ Category

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.

Posted in Ambiguity, Books, Coordination, Doug, Negation | 5 Comments »

Don’t Follow to Unfollow

Posted by Neal on February 9, 2014

“Don’t follow to unfollow,” said the last line in the Instagram profile.

What did that mean? It seemed to be saying, “To unfollow me, simply don’t follow me!” But that interpretation didn’t make sense!

Morphologically and semantically, the prefix un- doesn’t work that way. When you attach it to a verb, it refers to reversing an action. So unfollowing someone wouldn’t mean simply not following them; it requires that you follow them first. In fact, even that verb meaning makes sense only with the reversible social-media sense of follow: In Instagram, Twitter, or whatever app you’re using, follow means “click a button once to add someone’s updates to your news feed”; unfollow means to click again to remove them. In real life, though, following isn’t a reversible action. The closest you can come is to stop following someone. The reverse of following would be … what? Following their footsteps backward to find out where they started? In any case, you can’t unfollow someone on social media without first following them.

But wait, you say: Untied shoes can be shoes that were never tied! The unopened can of chocolate-covered peanut brittle like the one my wife gave me tonight had never been opened. (It’s open now.) This is true, and it’s because of the other way that un- can be used: It can prefix an adjective to form the negation of that adjective. So untied is not the verb untie with the suffix -ed turning it into an adjectival past participle; it’s the adjectival past participle tied, with the prefix un- giving it the meaning “not having been tied”. As for the verb untie, you don’t untie something by leaving it alone. It has to be in a knot already, and you remove the knot. For more on all this, read Ben Zimmer’s 2009 Boston Globe column.

“Don’t follow to unfollow”–was it a Zen thing? Kind of like “The only way to win is not to play”? I decided to ask Doug and Adam, who are more familiar with the latest trends in this area.

“Oh, I hate when people say that!” Doug said. “Some will even say, ‘Don’t unfollow, I have the app.’ “


Some people, Doug explained, advertise that they will follow anyone who follows them; “follow back,” in the parlance. Right, I said.

Some other people, Doug went on, will follow those people, and then when those other people follow these followers back, the original followers will turn around and unfollow the people they just followed.


To get their follower-to-following ratio up! So when people say “Don’t follow to unfollow,” what they mean is, don’t pull this kind of funny business.

Suddenly, it clicked into place for me. It was an attachment ambiguity. I had been interpreting to unfollow as a purpose infinitive modifying the imperative Don’t follow, as in the diagram on the left. In actuality, to unfollow was modifying just the verb follow, as in the diagram on the right.

The reading I was getting

The reading I was getting

The reading I was supposed to get

The reading I was supposed to get

Even if I had parsed the sentence correctly, though, my interpretation wouldn’t have been right. In my grammar follow to unfollow makes even less sense than my earlier interpretation. It means, “In order to unfollow me, follow me!” The intended meaning is really “Don’t [[follow to get me to follow you back] and [then unfollow me]]. A shorter phrase that would probably also work: Don’t [follow only to unfollow later]. Actually, that does get a few Google hits, but only 28, compared to the thousands for “Don’t follow to unfollow.”

But all this really brought home a kind of sad side of social media that I hadn’t been aware of. First of all, that there are people who care so much about their following size, and believe that so many others share the sentiment, that they promise to follow everyone back. They don’t care how dull or stupid anyone’s stream of content is; they just want that person to follow them. Second, that some of these people try to break the rules of this pitiful game by buying a follower and then stopping payment. Third, that players of this game are so invested in their bogus follower numbers that they send out pre-emptive threats: “Don’t follow to unfollow; I have the app.” The app, I’m assuming, is Who Unfollowed Me? or something like it, as the guy in the video describes. These apps typically advertise how easy it is to unfollow those that unfollow you, as if that’s just naturally the next step to take when you find out that someone unfollowed you. What next? Apps that find out who unfollowed you, and then force them to refollow you?

Now that I understand Don’t follow to unfollow better, I guess my original interpretation could work after all. The users who don’t want me following and then unfollowing really would prefer that I did my unfollowing by never following in the first place: To unfollow, don’t follow.

Posted in Attachment ambiguity, Lexical semantics, Morphology, Negation | 9 Comments »

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?

Posted in Morphology, Negation | 4 Comments »

Not Once But Twice

Posted by Neal on June 27, 2011

I was reading a column by Charles Krauthammer yesterday, and read this sentence:

Not once but twice (Afghanistan and then Iraq) did Bush seek and receive congressional authorization, as his father did for the Gulf War.

One peculiarity of English syntax is that the same subject-auxiliary inversion that we associate with questions (e.g. What will you say? instead of *What you will say?) is also mandatory in sentences beginning with a negative adverb, or a fronted negative quantifier. For example:

  • Not only should you say thanks in person; you should also send a thank-you note.
  • Never have I been so insulted!
  • Not once has she said hi to me.
  • Not a drop did he touch.

It also happens with what CGEL calls approximate negators, like these:

  • Rarely/seldom do they see the light of day.
  • Little does he know that…
  • Scarcely a bite did he swallow.

And also with adverbs or quantifiers that emphasize the limitation of some action:

  • Only then will we grant you permission.
  • Only seven seeds did she eat.

Now, back to Krauthammer’s sentence. The adverb phrase not once is interesting. Taken literally, it could refer to a number of times less than one (i.e. zero), or greater than one. In practice, however, it always means “zero times, never”; in other words, it’s understood as “not even once.” As such, it triggers the inversion I’ve been talking about. So if the sentence had started off with not once, without the but twice

Not once did Bush seek and receive congressional authorization.

–it would have been grammatical (although false).

What about the phrase not once but twice? That’s not a negative adverbial. Krauthammer’s not saying George W. Bush never asked for congressional authorization for a war; he’s saying Bush did it twice. For that reason, I wouldn’t expect the inversion. Also, there’s a syntactic difference between not once and not once but twice that shows how not once but twice patterns with ordinary adverbs, and not with negative ones: Of the two, only not once but twice can go at the end of a sentence:

*Bush sought congressional authorization {not once, not, never}. [Although at no time does work.]
Bush sought congressional authorization {not once but twice, sometimes, many times}.

So that’s why Not once did Bush seek congressional authorization sounds fine to me, but Not once but twice did Bush seek congressional authorization is surprising. However, I did some Googling, and found some other examples of not once but twice followed by an inverted subject and auxiliary:

  • NOT ONCE BUT TWICE did gold demonstrate a classic failure (link)
  • Indeed, not once, but twice did my gaze hold too high for my feet to follow safe motions, and a trip or two resulted. (link)

  • Not once, but twice did the coaster gods have it out for him. (<a href="link)
  • Not once but twice did Rageh Al-Murisi try to get into the cockpit while the plane descended for a landing while shouting Allahu Akbar. (link)

  • Not once, but twice did he come out into the crowd to play…. (link)
  • Not once, but twice was Kobe Bryant publicly asked for a comment regarding Mike Brown’s hire as Lakers coach. (link)
  • Not once but twice have you linked to a @joshgarrels interview that does not (yet) exist. (link)
  • Not once but twice was Robert Evans picked, seemingly off the street by Norma Shearer and Darryl Zanuck no less, to act in blockbuster movies. (link)
  • Not once but twice will it send its arrows. (link)

Searching for examples of not once but twice without inversion was more difficult, since you don’t know how long the subject NP might be. On the Corpus of Contemporary English, I tried searching for not once but twice followed by a proper noun, or just the word the. No results. If you find such a sentence, i.e. something like

Not once but twice, Bush sought and received congressional authorization.

please tell us about it in the comments. Also, how do the examples of not once but twice with inversion sound to you?

Posted in Inversion, Negation | 10 Comments »