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07 November 2004 @ 14:15
The ininincredible Mr. Wolfe  

The trouble with multiple negation is that sometimes, even when you figure out what a sentence actually means, you still can't be sure whether it's what the writer meant it to mean.

Philip Marchand, reviewing Tom Wolfe's new novel I am Charlotte Simmons in today's Toronto Star, discusses his reaction to Wolfe's characterization ("Sex! Sex! It was in the air!") of a modern North American university campus. Marchand writes as follows:

How reflective of current campuses this portrait really is I have no way of knowing, although my own memories of university life are not so dim that I don't find the portrait unbelievable. [Emphasis added. —Q.P.]

Now, I had to stare at that one only a few extra moments to work out that what Marchand is saying is that he remembers enough of his own university days to discredit Wolfe's description. (The shortcut is to observe that there's an odd number of negatives.) I'm inclined to suspect he means the opposite—but how can I be sure? Shouldn't I give his words the benefit of the doubt? Maybe the ivory towers of his recollection are so chaste that he cannot imagine them yielding, in the intervening years, to the kind of hedonism Wolfe describes.

My favourite instance of multiple negation, though, is in the title of a 1971 radio play by Caryl Churchill: Not Not Not Not Not Enough Oxygen. That's five nots in a row there, and Churchill means exactly what she says.

Nuværende humør: indescribableininincredulous
dixii on 11. November, 2004 12:36 (UTC)
_dkg_ on 23. November, 2004 20:03 (UTC)
i think marchand is actually saying what you believe he means: that he remembers sex in the air from his own college days.

your heuristic fails because it counts all negations, not just the ones in the relevant chain.

the adjective clause (?) "not so dim" can be swapped out with "clear enough" with no semantic change, because it's not connected with any of the other negations. if you do that, the number of negations becomes even, yielding a more straightforward endorsement of the final thought.

You could even rewrite the final clause, but how fun is "my memories are clear enough to believe him" in comparison to the original elaborate confusion?

i always liked the example of how two positives make a negative, invalidating Boole for attempts at handling natural english: Yeah, Right.
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 26. November, 2004 19:35 (UTC)

No, the first not is definitely part of the cascade of interacting negations. It negates the whole adjective phrase so dim that I don't find the portrait unbelievable. In order for "clear enough" to be a legitimate paraphrase, the not would have to have scope only over dim, as in my own memories of university life are [so [not-dim] that I don't find the portrait unbelievable].

_dkg_ on 27. November, 2004 19:35 (UTC)
ah. i see the interaction now that you break it out that way. so [not-dim] is awesome. if only people talked like that!

but it looks like the first not does have some peculiar influence over dim that is unlike its influence over the rest of the sentence (and unlike the other negations as well). Had Marchand left out the first not, his sentence would change meaning in two ways, not just one: it becomes "school was such a blur that i guess i believe him" instead of "i remember school well enough to think he's stretching the truth".

i guess part of the problem is that the sentence isn't communicating a single clearly demarcated idea that can be tested for truth and then either negated or not. Marchand is commenting on both (a) the quality of his recollections and (b) their accordance with Wolfe's.

But: if the goal is to bring our intuitive understanding of Marchand's intent into agreement with a formal analysis of his writing, i think the simplest way to do that would be to formally give that first not scope only over dim like you say, rather than to assume that Marchand (and his editors, presumably) just lost count of his negations.

How you formalize this rescoping into a set of rules that would help a machine make the "correct" interpretation for sentences like this is beyond me.

One other angle on this, though i don't want to beat it into the ground too much (honest!). if i just say "i am not so strong" that just means "i am fairly weak". so is a filler word there somehow (or perhaps an intensifier (or anti-intensifier, given the negation)). But it definitely isn't out of place, at least in colloquial speech, even without the negation: "i am so strong!".

However, if i say "i am so strong that i can lift this barrel", so itself is acting in a different way, because it limits strong to only cover barrel-lifting. But "i am not so strong that i can lift this barrel" is a weirdly ambiguous sentence. i bet if you presented a dozen people with this sentence, at least a handful of them would conclude that the speaker was in fact a (perhaps self-deprecating) barrel-lifter. Knowing that the stronger someone is, the more likely they are to be barrel-lifters helps to clear up the ambiguity somewhat, but of course we don't have the luxury of such prior knowledge with Marchand's sentence unless we went to college with him.

i think. geez, the more i think about language, the more i realize i don't know. but i guess that goes for most things.
_dkg_ on 27. November, 2004 20:04 (UTC)
arrgh. the more i think over the "i am not so strong" business, the more convinced i become that the simplest explanation is just that Marchand (and his editors) goofed, not that there's some special exception or alternate ruleset to follow. You're right: the first not really must have scope over the whole clause.

You just can't say "i'm not so strong that i can't get out of bed". that sentence just doesn't work in natural english, even though we know that less-strong people are more likely to be unable to get out of bed. The ambiguity just doesn't resolve in the this direction, even when you want to use it to force the not to narrow its scope. You have to say "i'm so weak that i can't get out of bed" if you want it to make sense.

sorry for cluttering your journal with these ruminations, when you had it pegged from the beginning. i'm still confused, but less so than before!
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 27. November, 2004 20:14 (UTC)
sorry for cluttering your journal with these ruminations

Quite all right; this journal is largely intended to accommodate ruminations about language, and not just my own, either. Besides, I got a good laugh out of "I'm not so strong that I can't get out of bed"—I'm picturing a body-builder who has become so muscle-bound that it's a struggle (but not an insurmountable one) for him to hoist his bulk out of his bunk without damaging either.

love, play & inquirytrochee on 7. December, 2004 08:00 (UTC)
And this all comes up again in Language Log today, just after _dkg_ mentioned this on the phone to me.