Not long ago I wrote about double negatives. I said that we usually think double negatives cancel each other out, but that there is a school of thought that says that a double negative can be used for emphasis. I didn’t remember my source, but after I had written that blog entry and had it queued up for publication I began a course from The Great Courses entitled English Grammar Boot Camp. The instructor, Anne Curzan, discusses this in detail.
Curzan says that while there are sentences in English where the negatives do in fact cancel each other out, a double, or multiple, negative is also frequently used for emphasis. Similar to my “I didn’t do nuthin’” example, she uses the example, “We don’t have nothing to hide.” She says it is clear that the meaning is “We have nothing to hide,” and not “We have something to hide.”
She points out that double negatives used for emphasis can be found in Chaucer. She tells us that you can find double negatives for emphasis in Shakespeare. In As You Like It, Celia says: “I cannot go no further.”
Curzan says that she has two answers when someone says, “But when you multiply two negatives you get a positive,” to support the idea that two negatives in a sentence cancel each other out.
- “Language is not math.”
- “OK fine, let’s do math. If you have two negatives in math and you add them, what do you get? You actually get a bigger negative.”
So if we listen to the defendant on the witness stand saying “I didn’t do nuthin’” in that cartoon, I guess we’re going to have to acquit.
I spent the greater part of a recent morning getting my knickers in a knot over nothing.
I had just started a new course from The Great Courses entitled English Grammar Boot Camp. The instructor displayed a sentence which the editors of the American Heritage Dictionary sent to their usage panel to get panel member views as to whether the construction was acceptable. The sentence read:
The question revolved around the use of “equally as important” in the sentence, the idea being that it might be better to streamline the sentence by writing “equally important.” However, I fixated on the words after the semicolon, thinking that they did not constitute an independent clause. I composed a rant for the blog on my business web site, describing how that bothered me, and citing the Chicago Manual of Style chapter and verse. Chicago takes the position that the phrase to the right of a semicolon must be an independent clause.
But wait. There’s a problem here. “equally as important is the desire to learn” is an independent clause. It is a sort of backwards Yoda English (“Much to learn you still have.”) that does not stand well on its own, but it is an independent clause nonetheless. Remove the “as.” “Equally important is the desire to learn.”
|Subject||the desire to learn|
Now there is a comparative (“equally important”) that does not have a referent, which is not good syntax, but grammatically this is an independent clause.
I wasted a morning on a rant I was wrong about.
In the words of Miss Emily Latella, “Oh, that’s very different. Never mind.”
I got a good laugh when I saw this cartoon on Facebook. Judging by how many different places it shows up in a Google image search, it has certainly made the rounds. And I am one of those who would agree with that perspective.
That perspective may not be correct, however. I read an item somewhere that takes a different approach. I wish I had saved it, but I failed to do so. This approach says that the English language need not follow the laws of math and logic. The writer said that a double negative can be used to emphasize the negative rather than cancel itself out. I believe the writer cited a distinguished example of this, perhaps Shakespeare.
Worth considering. And if you are familiar with the article I’m referencing, please pass it on to me.
I think I’m overdue for a language rant. So here is a language rant.
I love the weekly newsletter from grammarbook.com. I don’t agree with everything they say, but I like a lot of their material. One recent newsletter brought up the use of the words “optic” and “pivot” being used as jargon words. That got my attention.
I had a manager who all of a sudden out of nowhere started using the term optic. Something like: “With this new product being released we’ll need to consider the product line through that optic.” Horribly annoying.
I also heard pivot used with some regularity. According to the newsletter, in the high tech world “pivot means ‘to adopt a new strategy when your startup is floundering.’” But I heard it in the Fortune 100 high tech company for which I worked. “They really pivoted in their marketing message.”
Here’s one of my own: over-rotate. One marketing manager in particular loved the term. When the boss said to do this instead of that and the staff responded accordingly, “We really over-rotated on that one.”
I feel better. End of rant. Thanks.
The good folks over at Snopes soundly debunk the oft-repeated story that the popular Chevy Nova sedan did not sell well in Spanish-speaking countries in the 1970’s because “no va” in Spanish means “doesn’t go.” It just wasn’t true. Too bad. It’s a good story.
But here is a true story directly from my own experience.
In the high tech industry, and perhaps others, there is the term “FUD.” It means “fear, uncertainty, and doubt.” As in “The competition is trying to spread FUD about our new product.” In fact, I spent many years in high tech never having heard the term. It was only after that big merger that I heard management from the other company use it.
Only recently have I become familiar with the Latino food company FUD. From the first time I saw one of their trucks I thought that was strange name for a food company. Fŭd? Really? So I decided to look them up and see what this was all about. According to Wikipedia, the company name is pronounced fo͞od, not fŭd. And it is in fact an acronym for Fino, Único y Delicioso (Fine, Unique & Delicious). Very much the complete opposite of the tech industry FUD.
A little research can clear up a lot.
Back in 2014 I wrote about the mondegreen. A mondegreen is a misheard song lyric. It recently popped up as the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) Word of the Day, so I thought it would be fun to revisit it.
The word was coined by essayist Sylvia Wright in 1954. She admits to having misheard the words to a poem her mother read her. Her mother read:
“They have slain the Earl of Murray, And laid him on the green.”
but she heard “And laid him on the green” as “And Lady Mondegreen.”
She used the phrase in an article in Harper’s Magazine in 1954, where she said,
The point about what I shall hereafter call mondegreens, since no one else has thought up a word for them, is that they are better than the original.
This from the OED entry on the word.
The entry also quotes Stephen Pinker in 1994: “The interesting thing about mondegreens is that the mis-hearings are generally less plausible than the intended lyrics.”
I’m not sure that those two statements are contradictory. Take Wright’s original mondegreen. It is more interesting than the original in its symmetry, bit it is less plausible. The wife of an Earl is a Countess, not a Lady. Although the daughter of an Earl is a Lady, so had it been his daughter and not his wife that was slain in this mishearing, that would be correct.
A famous mondegreen from rock music is John Fogerty’s “There’s a bad moon on the rise” being heard as “There’s a bathroom on the right.” More interesting and less plausible.
One of my favorite songs from my Claremont cockroach days was England Dan & John Ford Coley’s “I’d Really Love To See You Tonight.” My mondegreen was hearing “I’m not talking ’bout movin’ in” as “I’m not talking ‘bout no wedding.” Hmmm. In that case I’d say equally interesting and equally plausible.
Mondegreens. ‘Cause they’re fun.
I enjoy getting the newsletter from GrammarBook.com. They recently published a newsletter on autoantonyms. An autoantonym is a word with two opposite meanings. I didn’t particularly like their examples, but the whole thing is here if you’d like to read it.
My favorite autoantonym is “sanction.”
- This is an officially sanctioned 5K rum.
- The FIFA soccer officials were sanctioned.
My late, lovely, lesbian friend Dennise (how’s that for alliteration?) and I shared an office at a company where we were technical writers together. We had a manager who could be rather tightly wound at times, and when Dennise said that she might do something or another, I told her, “You’d better get sanctioning for that or you might be sanctioned.”
I love our English language.