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Who does not come away


As an alert commenter on points out, my review today of Philip Ball’s The Music Instinct perpetrates an obstupefactuous error by failing to count multiple negatives. I wrote:

It will be the rare music-lover who does not come away without having learned many interesting things […]

This is considerably more critical than I had intended, since it actually means that hardly anyone will learn anything from the book? Instead, I ought to have written either a) “It will be the rare music-lover who does not come away having learned…”; or (perhaps better) b) “It will be the rare music-lover who comes away without having learned…”. The strange thing is that the sentence as it stands is possibly still more likely than not to evoke the intended meaning in a reader’s mind, even though it says the opposite. When too many negations start getting piled up in a sentence, do we suffer from a form of negative blindness?

  1. 1  KB Player  February 14, 2010, 12:33 am 

    You’re right in saying that people would read what you wrote as conveying your intended meaning. People don’t read negatives logically, with minus cancelling minus. X will say, “I haven’t got nothing,” a smarter person will say, “Then you must have something, if you haven’t got nothing,” but everyone knows what X means.

    In medieval English the negatives were “intensifiers” so you’d get something like “none nowhere” or “not nobody” (can’t remember the exact wording) and the whole sense was negative though if you counted the negatives cancelling each other out they wouldn’t actually add up to a negative (or they would add up to a positive).

    Few writers are unable to handle a string of negatives or semi-negatives (like “rare” or “few” or “hardly)” without stumbling.

  2. 2  Vance Maverick  February 14, 2010, 12:34 am 

    Frankly, I could care less.

  3. 3  Vance Maverick  February 14, 2010, 12:35 am 

    Also, KB, I see what you did there.

  4. 4  Steven  February 14, 2010, 9:43 am 

    So do I!

    I think The temptation of overnegation describes what went on here.

  5. 5  Dave Weeden  February 15, 2010, 11:07 am 

    In medieval English the negatives and in classical Greek too. I knew that bit or erudition would come in useful one day.

    I suspect, but cannot prove, that not not x = x (rather than not x = -x; not not x = -2x) came into language along with common numeracy and familiarity with multiplying negative numbers. Though the Greeks had -ve numbers, so hey ho.

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