Misnegation should not be overestimated, I mean underestimated

Misnegation is an obscure word for a common phenomenon. You won’t find it in dictionaries, but you can probably figure out that it means some kind of ‘incorrect negation’ – not to be confused with double negatives (‘multiple negation’), criticism of which tends to be dubious.

So what exactly are we talking about here?

Misnegation is where we say something with negatives in it that don’t add up the way we intend. We lose track of the logic and reverse it inadvertently. For example, I might say that the likelihood of misnegation cannot be understated, when I mean it cannot be overstated – it is, in fact, easily understated.

Misnegation often occurs with overstate or understate, overestimate or underestimate, but it can take many, many forms. It pops up in all sorts of places, including large print on official signs, as this example from Helen Stevens shows. Even Hägar the Horrible once said, ‘I miss not having’ when he really meant ‘I miss having’:

Hägar the Horrible cartoon with two panels. Panel 1: Hägar and friend are walking in a snowy landscape. Hägar says, "This is the only time of year when I miss not having a nine-to-five job!" His friend asks why. Panel 2, panned back showing evergreen trees, and undulating landscape, and more snow. Hägar says: "I never get to go to an office Christmas party!"

At Language Log last year, Ben Zimmer wrote that misnegations with understate(ment) ‘are so common that they hardly even get noticed’, and that ‘it’s hard to find any use of “not an understatement” that is not misnegated’. With more intricate syntax, like ‘This is not to say that I don’t think that X’, we’re extremely likely to fudge the semantics.

These constructions are intrinsically tricky, so it’s no surprise they keep confounding us. Our brains just don’t compute them well. But there’s a news story doing the rounds with a relatively obvious example that still slipped past multiple editors and proofreaders: it ended up on the cover of a book, which had to be pulped when the error was spotted.

The blurb in question said the author ‘never fails to disappoint’. Three of these four words ­­- never, fails, and disappoint – have negative polarity, so you can see how a reader, glancing at it, could simply infer the intended sense: ‘never disappoints’. It was apparently meant to be ‘never fails to deliver’. (Then again, the author is a ‘PR specialist’…)

As Mark Liberman wrote in 2004:

The obvious hypothesis is that it’s hard for people to calculate the meaning of phrases with several negatives (perhaps especially in combination with things like scalar limits and hypotheticals). The implicit negation in words like fail and ignore may be especially difficult to untangle. This explains why the errors are not detected and corrected: we accept an interpretation that is a priori the plausible one, even though it’s incompatible with the sentence as written or spoken . . .

Liberman again, in a later post:

One way of looking at this is that in sentences with multiple negations, people get confused about how the polarity works out, and therefore put in the wrong number of negatives and end up saying the opposite of what they mean. Another perspective is that negation is a feature that sometimes seems to spread across multiple locations in a phrase. Though formal modern English is not a negative concord language, speakers are still often tempted by the old negative-concord patterns that still apply in colloquial phrases like “it ain’t no cat can’t get in no coop”.

The Guardian says that the phrase ‘never fails to disappoint’ got past six proofreaders at the publisher, but I wonder about that. Cover blurbs are late additions in book production and may not be subject to the same level of review as the body text. The same goes for book spines, where egregious typos can creep in.

In conclusion, if you’re a writer, speaker, editor, or proofreader and you see implicit negatives begin to stack up in a sentence, you would do well to pause and pay close attention.

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8 Responses to Misnegation should not be overestimated, I mean underestimated

  1. kendreart says:

    Very interesting! This one always trips me up usually because of the use of sarcasm (or not): ‘Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.’ I often find myself analysing the speaker for intention – do nothing or do everything? Is it about me or you?

    • kendreart says:

      But upon second reading, I think I have just said what you said not to be confused with: multiple negation! Now I really am confused.

      • Stan Carey says:

        That’s an interesting example. It’s not really misnegation, because the logic holds true, and it’s not multiple negation in the ‘double negative’ sense, because there the negatives are intensifying rather than mutually negating. ‘Don’t do nothing I wouldn’t do’ would fall under that category. But it can be hard to read sarcasm correctly, whatever is said.

  2. bevrowe says:

    I suppose this is not strictly misnegation either but I have always been puzzled by the expression “Cheap at half the price” when “Cheap at twice the price” makes more sense.

  3. Thanks for this, Stan! I found this story fascinating, and appreciate your context for and thoughts on it. (Totally agree that it’s VERY doubtful six proofreaders went over that blurb, btw.)

    I do a workshop that teaches eight writing/editing steps or tools for improving readability, and reducing the number of negatives, *especially* expressions with multiple negatives, is Step 3 (right after shortening sentences and deleting unnecessary words).

    A favourite example I give, from a Toronto newspaper column years ago, is “That is not to say that we do not regret not having bought a house while we were in London.” I point out that, having given this workshop dozens of times and discussed this sentence each time, I can STILL usually not remember whether this writer bought a London house or not. It’s like the info is so coated in negatives that the essential point doesn’t “stick.”

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks for your thoughts on this, Elizabeth. That’s a great example that you use in your workshop. It’s a matter of courtesy (or a lack of it) on the writer’s part. They should be sensitive to things like stacked negatives that make life difficult for readers, and keenly aware that what’s clear in their own minds is not always clear on the page or screen – and can sometimes even be comically unclear.

  4. […] ended up on the cover of a book? And yet it happens, and there is an explanation for it in this post by Stan Carey about the issue with several negatives in one sentence and how our brain sometimes fails to process […]

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