Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Overnegation’ Category

At the Water Park

Posted by Neal on May 19, 2010

No tipping buckets at MY water park!

During our trip last weekend, we stayed at one of these combination hotel-and-indoor-water-parks that have come into existence in the last decade. This one was in Sandusky, Ohio, and was one of three such operations that I saw while we were there. OK, only two if you don’t count the one that had gone out of business. That one had a Hawaiian theme, with a big tiki statue in the parking lot and the name “Maui Sands” readable through the white plastic that had been put over the sign. Of the three, it was the only one that had a theme even close to appropriate for a water park. The one a block away from us was called Kalahari! The one we stayed in was (and is, for that matter) called the Great Wolf Lodge, with a faux Pacific Northwest Indian theme. The Pacific Northwest is a wetter environment than the Kalahari desert, but still not one that makes you think of splashing around in a bathing suit.

Personally, I’d prefer a water park with no theme at all. It just adds to the expense of designing the place, and keeping it in good repair. If you have mannequins of Native Americans, or Old West settlers, even if they don’t look corny to begin with, they detract from the theme when they’re covered in dust after a few years. Yep, if I built a water park, there’d be no theme, just fun water rides. And since I’d only put in the fun stuff, and not the irritating stuff, there’d be no play structures that sprayed, squirted, or sprinkled water. I like hot showers, but I don’t like getting sprayed with cold water, not even in a water fight when I’m already in a swimming pool. I don’t like the feeling of cold drops of water on otherwise warm skin. So, no playsets with hoses and faucets for ambushing people, no curtains of dripping water that you have to pass through to get to the slides, and especially no tipping buckets! I don’t know how these gimmicky items got so popular, but it seems nobody can build a water park these days, indoor or outdoor, without installing a thousand-gallon giant bucket on an axle on top of the central play structure. Water is piped up to the top to fill the bucket, and every five minutes or so, the bucket tips over and pours it all out. At least there’s usually a bell that gives you a warning. A warning for normal people, that is; not for those who take it as an invitation to hurry over and stand on the floor in front of the bucket. What is wrong with these people?

In my waterpark, you’ll be allowed to ride your inner tube facing frontwards or backwards, on your back or on your stomach. Hooking your tubes into a chain? Not a problem. There won’t be rules like this one, on a sign posted next to the “Totem Towers” slide complex:

So if you were wondering what linguistic point I was going to make, here it is. Though I disapprove of this rule, it’s a great example of how subject-verb agreement can sometimes make a semantic difference. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Coordination, Overnegation, Semantics | 10 Comments »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Overnegation | 5 Comments »

Absence of Non-Overnegation

Posted by Neal on December 4, 2007

“Whew!” my wife said. “That’s something you get used to not smelling.” It was the second day of our weekend trip to Las Vegas, and we had just walked through another pocket of cigarette smoke on the casino floor. There’s been a ban on public indoor smoking in Ohio since May, and a local ban for longer than that in the area where we live, so we’d had plenty of time to get used to not smelling cigarette smoke. To tell you the truth, it hadn’t taken very long at all.

“No kidding,” I said. “So…

…you miss not smelling it?

“Uh…?” she answered.

Wow. I learned several years ago that for my wife, miss not [verb]-ing and miss [verb]-ing mean the same thing. But I’d wondered: If the context demanded it, could she could still get the compositional (i.e. literal) reading of miss not [verb]-ing? Some people can. There’s me, of course. And in Mark Liberman’s post from 2004 (which I linked to in my last post on this topic), he found that two out of ten randomly selected examples had compositional miss-not. To Liberman’s non-overnegations, I’ll add this one, which I found in the book I’ve been reading to Doug and Adam at bedtime:

The mood in their meeting that night was subdued: no bickering, no laughter, only a general feeling of grim resolve. Now that the children finally knew some things, they all rather missed not knowing them.
(Trenton Lee Stewart, The Mysterious Benedict Society, 2007, p. 253)

In fact, it was that example that had put me on the lookout for other situations where compositional miss-not would make sense, so that I could so smoothly and naturally work it into my conversation during the weekend. Yet even in that perfect context, the smoothly and naturally worked-in compositional miss-not crashed and burned when my wife tried to parse it. When she read the draft of this very posting, the sentence still struck her as a complete non sequitur in the conversation about cigarette smoke. But if we’re talking about, say, the homemade bread her mom used to make every week, the bread that smelled so good and which she hasn’t smelled for so long, then You miss not smelling it makes perfect sense to her. And, she adds, so does You miss smelling it. To express that someone prefers a former state of affairs, in which they would not do a particular thing, to the current state of affairs in which they do do that particular thing, she just has to find another means, like the workaround I just used, or by saying something like what she actually said on the casino floor.

Posted in Overnegation | 6 Comments »

Overnegation in Funky Winkerbean

Posted by Neal on November 23, 2007

Today’s entry in the recently rebooted Funky Winkerbean comic strip finds the former high school band director watching a marching band on TV and reminiscing:


It’s another overnegation with the verb miss!

Posted in Overnegation | 2 Comments »

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?

Posted in Negative polarity items, Overnegation, Zeugmatic | 2 Comments »

Stephen King: Horror Master, /l/ Uvularizer, Overnegator

Posted by Neal on January 27, 2006

In a recent posting on the Linguist List (hat tip to phonoloblog‘s Eric Bakovic) Karen Chung tells about hearing Stephen King in an interview pronouncing some of his /l/s as uvular nasal consonants, just like I did when I was a kid:

I had trouble with my /l/, too; well into elementary school I pronounced it as [N] (i.e., a uvular nasal consonant–what you get if you start to say the ng sound and then slide the body of your tongue as far back along your soft palate as you can without cutting off the airflow or gagging).

But nevermind Mr. King’s phonetics, how about his semantics? In the January 27 issue of Entertainment Weekly, I read an excerpt from his latest novel, Cell, and found this gem:

Clay could remember the words from the days when he’d had no reason not to believe his marriage wouldn’t last forever.

OK, let’s see…

reason to believe his marriage wouldn’t last forever

Oh, that’s bad. He thinks his marriage might not last forever.

reason not to believe his marriage wouldn’t last forever

Ah, that’s good! He thinks it will last forever!

no reason not to believe his marriage wouldn’t last forever

Oh, that’s bad. He thinks his marriage won’t last forever. But wait a minute–that was then, which the text implies is different from now, but we already learned a couple of pages ago that he currently doesn’t think his marriage will last forever. Stephen King must have committed an overnegation.

Posted in Overnegation, What the L | 2 Comments »

Missing Pieces

Posted by Neal on November 16, 2004

For the two or three of you who’ve been reading my posts since I started doing them on Agoraphilia: If you didn’t like “My Miss-understanding,” then you certainly will not enjoy this post from Mark Liberman. It’s about Donald Rumsfeld’s statement that he “will miss not working closely with” Colin Powell.

Posted in Overnegation | 1 Comment »

Overnegation vs. Multiple Negation

Posted by Neal on October 17, 2004

An article by Tamara Jones of The Washington Post appeared in our paper this week, about the quiet infiltration of trivia game shows by former college quiz bowl participants. One of these guys, named Eric Hillemann, was quoted:

Two weeks wouldn’t go by that there wasn’t someone I didn’t know on [Who Wants to be a Millionaire].

Having read the posts on Language Log about overnegation (for example, this one here), my sensors immediately went off: One, two, three negations! There was a good chance that the speaker had lost track of exactly what he wanted to negate, and put in one too many nots. Let’s see… He means that there was usually at least one person on the show that he knew. So in other words, he meant that two weeks wouldn’t go by that there wasn’t someone he did know on the show.

As I went through the logic, I wondered how overnegation was different from the multiple negation of nonstandard English, as in:

I didn’t do nothing to nobody.

In both cases, you have multiple negations which cannot be taken strictly compositionally if you want to get the speaker’s intended meaning. But even when I accept the above multiple negation as a grammatical (though nonstandard) sentence, the overnegation from Eric Hillemann still seems like a true mistake. Why is that? I’m guessing it has something to do with the fact that the negatives in the overnegation are each in their own clause (two of them in relative clauses), while those in the multiple negation are all in the same clause. When they’re in separate clauses, each negation has to be processed independently of the others, which leads to the unintended reading when there is one too many.

Posted in Overnegation | 2 Comments »

My Miss-understanding

Posted by Neal on January 22, 2004

A Jan. 21 posting by Chris Potts on Language Log discusses negated sentences that mean the same thing as their non-negated counterparts, the most well-known probably being this pair:

(1) (a) I couldn’t care less. / (b) I could care less.

This reminds me of another not-to-be-taken-literally negation that I first heard from my wife. She said:

(2) I miss not seeing her.

Posted in Overnegation, You're so literal! | 2 Comments »