Misnegation should not be overestimated, I mean underestimated

November 19, 2018

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!"

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Pelecanos: the words, the rhythms, the slang

July 28, 2016

I’m slowly catching up on the back catalogue of George Pelecanos, who has written about 20 crime fiction novels (and also wrote for The Wire). Recently I read Hell to Pay (2002), which contains several items of linguistic or metalinguistic interest.

The book is one of a handful by Pelecanos that centre on private detectives Derek Strange and Terry Quinn, the first black, the second white, the two ex-cops.

Terry Quinn goes looking for information from sex workers. He bums a cigarette as a way into conversation, but being a non-smoker he has nothing to light it with. Then he encounters Stella, a ‘pale’ girl ‘maybe knocking on the door of seventeen’:

She sat down without invitation. He handed her the cigarette.

‘You got a light?’


‘You need a new rap,’ she said, rooting through her shoulder bag for a match. Finding a book, she struck a flame and put fire to the cigarette. ‘The one you got is lame.’

‘You think so?’

‘You be hittin’ those girls up for a smoke, you don’t ask ’em for a light, you don’t even have a match your own self?’

Quinn took in the girl’s words, the rhythms, the dropping of the g’s, the slang. Like that of most white girls selling it on the street, her speech was an affectation, a strange in-and-out blend of Southern cracker and city black girl.

‘Pretty stupid, huh?’

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‘The nicest no I ever heard’

June 5, 2015

In Richard Feynman’s The Pleasure of Finding Things Out (1999) is the transcript of an interview conducted under the auspices of the AAAS, in which Feynman recalls his very first formal lecture. As an undergrad working with John Wheeler the pair had formulated a new theory of how light works, and it was considered interesting enough to warrant a seminar.

Richard Feynman - The Pleasure of Finding Things Out - Penguin book coverEugene Wigner, who had suggested the seminar, felt the theory was sufficiently important to appeal to various luminaries of physical science, and duly sent special invitations to Wolfgang Pauli, John von Neumann (whom Feynman calls ‘the world’s greatest mathematician’), astronomer Henry Norris Russell, and Albert Einstein, who lived nearby.

Feynman, then aged 24, was understandably daunted, but he reports the situation with characteristic humour:

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Litotes and lyrics on which we disagree on

May 16, 2015

Following my recent defence of double negatives, I wrote further about a particular form of multiple negation that has been popular for many centuries. In Litotes is no small matter, at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I describe this figure of speech as:

less rare than you might think – indeed, it is anything but uncommon. Litotes is used in all sorts of language varieties and contexts, from high-flown rhetoric to everyday small talk. We might reply to the greeting ‘How are you?’ with ‘Not bad’ or ‘Can’t complain.’ . . .

Litotes shows up in some familiar phrases and idioms. If we think someone should be able to do or understand something, we can say it’s not rocket science. If someone has overstepped the mark, we can let them know in no uncertain terms – a phrase that conveys the force of our disapproval. So as well as understatement, litotes can also be used for emphasis.

The post looks at other forms of litotes, such as the common not un-X construction, cites some familiar examples from pop culture, and considers its functions and range of meaning.


With pop culture on the brain, I then tackled a famous (and somewhat infamous) song lyric at which I’ve often wondered at. The line I’m interested in occurs at 0:18 and 2:06 in the video below:

The question is whether McCartney sings: this ever-changing world in which we live in, or …in which we’re livin’. In my Macmillan post This ever-changing language in which we live in, I note that the latter interpretation

would make sense, and it’s more charitable to McCartney. But it doesn’t seem to be what he sings. The we/we’re bit is ambiguous on account of his accent, but the later phrase really doesn’t sound like livin’ to me – the stress pattern is more suggestive of live in. The Guns N’ Roses cover is more unequivocally live in, and apparently it’s what appears in the original liner notes.

But even language experts disagree on what McCartney sings: Grammarphobia holds to the livin’ reading, citing (somewhat unconvincingly) a book on pop music, while David Crystal makes a strong case for live in, and writes: ‘Certainly it’s ungrammatical; but it’s not unnatural.’

Read the rest for more analysis and conjecture, including McCartney’s own ambivalence when queried about it. For older posts, see my archive at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

Multiple negation and the meaning of ‘grammar’

April 24, 2015

I have two more posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. (Yes, I mentioned a prior couple just a week ago – I wasn’t keeping up!)

First: Grammar at cross purposes highlights a common source of unnecessary strife over language use: the meaning of grammar, by which linguists usually mean syntax, morphology, and so on – the rules we pick up informally when we’re very young. By contrast:

When non-linguists talk about grammar, they are normally referring to more transient things like spelling, style, and conventions of usage. This discrepancy between the technical and popular interpretations of ‘grammar’ fosters uncertainty and disagreement over what a grammatical rule is, and what therefore counts as correct. Disputants may be at cross purposes because advice on ‘grammar’ is often simply instruction on style and usage. . . .

Grammar rules, as I once tweeted, come from how people use language. They emerge from the bottom up; they are not imposed top-down from logic, Latin, or some higher ideal.


One example of a ‘rule’ imposed by decree from logic, Latin, and higher ideals is the proscription against multiple negation, better known as double negatives.

Ain’t nothin’ (grammatically) wrong with no double negatives addresses this perennial point of controversy, looking over the usage’s long history in different varieties of English and how it came to be ostracised from reputable use:

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage reports Otto Jespersen’s observation that because negation in English has often been marked subtly – ‘by no more than an unstressed particle like old ne or modern -n’t’ – speakers have long tended to reinforce it with additional negation. So the double negative is a feature of many dialects, and indeed was once common even in the literary English of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Defoe. But that was before it gained a bad reputation, the result more of social than of grammatical pressures.

The post then briefly documents double negatives’ fall from grace as a result of unwarranted pejoration from 18thC grammarians and those who’ve carried the torch for them ever since.

Older posts can be read in my archive at Macmillan.

Ain’t that how everybody talks

April 24, 2014

I enjoyed this exchange on the use of ain’t in Annie Proulx’s story ‘The Mud Below’, from her fine collection Close Range: Wyoming Stories. Diamond, a young rodeo bullrider, is visiting his home and talking with Pearl, his ten-year-old-brother:

Diamond fried two eggs in butter and ate them out of the pan, fried two more. He looked for coffee but there was only the jar of instant dust.

“I’m going to get a buckle like yours when I’m eighteen,” Pearl said. “And I’m not going to get bucked off because I’ll hold on with the grip of death. Like this.” And he made a white-knuckled fist.

“This ain’t a terrific buckle. I hope you get a good one.”

“I’m going to tell Momma you said ‘ain’t.’”

“For Christ sake, that’s how everybody talks. Except for one old booger steer roper. I could curl your hair. And I ain’t foolin. You want an egg?”

“I hate eggs. They aren’t good for you. Ain’t good for you. How does the old booger talk?”

In a few words (Ain’t good for you) we see a child spontaneously adopt a previously unavailable piece of grammar. Ain’t isn’t part of my dialect: Hiberno-English amn’t, with which it shares an ancestor, covers a lot of that ground. But I ain’t averse to it, and I use it occasionally.

Incidentally, I’m using a new version of Microsoft Word, and it red-lined ain’t in the draft of this post. Having added the word to my previous dictionary years ago, I’d forgotten that the unfortunate stigma against it extends even there, and probably helps perpetuate it.


Amn’t I glad we use “amn’t” in Ireland

March 4, 2014

From ‘An Irish Childhood in England: 1951’ by Eavan Boland (full poem on my Tumblr):

let the world I knew become the space
between the words that I had by heart
and all the other speech that always was
becoming the language of the country that
I came to in nineteen fifty-one:
barely-gelled, a freckled six-year-old,
overdressed and sick on the plane,
when all of England to an Irish child

was nothing more than what you’d lost and how:
was the teacher in the London convent who,
when I produced “I amn’t” in the classroom
turned and said—“You’re not in Ireland now.”

I grew up in Ireland using expressions and grammatical constructions that I took to be normal English, only to discover years later that what counts as normal in language usage can be highly dependent on geography and dialect. I amn’t sure when I realised it, but amn’t is an example of this.

Standard English has an array of forms of the verb be for various persons and tenses with a negative particle (n’t) affixed: isn’twasn’t, aren’t, weren’t. But there’s a curious gap. In the tag question I’m next, ___ I?, the usual form is the unsystematic am I not or the irregular aren’t I (irregular because we don’t say *I are). Why not amn’t?

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