Monday, August 22, 2011

Watch Your Negations

Everyone knows that in English grammar double negatives are a “no-no.” Why is this? Simply put, double negatives communicate the positive. It’s quite confusing. The first fun type of negation is of this familiar sort.

“I do not not go that store.”

Of course, this propositional content is in reality “it is not the case that I do not go to the store,” which is just to say that “it is the case that I go to the store.” Another interesting negation includes mixing words such as “not” and “never.”

“I have never not worked for Disney.”

I have actually heard this one in real conversation before. Of course, the propositional content conveyed by this sentence is actually “it has never been the case that I have not worked for Disney.” This entails the absurd consequence that he has been working for Disney his entire life, including the first moment he was born. Why? Because using a word like “never” in conjunction with a negation such as “not” indicates that its opposite was always actually the case. So if I were to say, “I’ve never not been dead,” it would be the case that I have always been dead, and hence have never actually lived. I suppose at that point I would be a figment of someone’s imagination. But what if we reversed the negations?

“I have not never worked for Disney.”

One may be tempted to think the same propositional content has been expressed. But that would be mistaken. What is actually being conveyed is “it is not the case that I have never worked for Disney,” or “it is the case that I have worked for Disney;” a decidedly different meaning. Finally, it is important in the cases where only one negative is used to place the negation correctly. There is a world of difference between:

“It is not true that everyone read the book.”


“It is true that everyone read not the book.”

While the latter makes for a bizarre sentence anyway, it claims that it is the case that no one actually read the book, while the former states only that not everyone read the book. While the two statements are not necessarily contradictory (since it could be the case that no one read the book and hence true that not everyone read the book), they nonetheless may convey the wrong meaning depending upon what one intends. In any case, it seems that negations can be a tricky thing.
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