Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Otto misses something, but what?

Today's Beetle Bailey has an interesting example of misnegation:

Otto barks at e-mail. He misses the days when the mailman doesn't come.
Surely what Otto misses are "the days when the mailman came". Or he misses "it when the mailman doesn't come".

This is the kind of construction - one without an overtly negative, that is, no negative prefix, verb - where misnegation, generally over negation, is prone to occur. Things like "no head injury is too trivial to be ignored", for instance. But it also occurs in constructions like "can't fail to miss", or "cannot be underestimated."

Note: this is not negative concord, where (except in Standard English) two overtly negative markers reinforce each other, as in "we don't need no stinking badges". And it's not genuine double negation, as in "I cannot help but note..." or "I don't never go to church, I'm there every first Sunday!" This is something subtler and hard to notice - in fact, often it isn't noticed.

(For discussion by people who actually understand what they're talking about, see these Language Log posts on the topic and especially this one on this very comic.)



At 10:45 PM, February 02, 2011 Blogger Barry Leiba had this to say...

I have a friend who consistently says things like "I miss not seeing him." It's maddening!

At 2:02 PM, February 03, 2011 Anonymous Mark had this to say...

As you know, there is a discussion of this over at LanguageLog. I have been thinking about this strip and I still can't figure out exactly what the point is. Does Sarge mean that Otto barks at email because he's mad about it replacing regular mail? Or does he bark at email as a substitute on the days when there is no mail? Anyone who has ever mailed a contribution to a soliciting organization knows that letters are only a very small fraction of the mail that is delivered every day, so surely the mailman (anachronistically referred to as a letter carrier by the USPS). still delivers regularly.

At 4:41 PM, February 03, 2011 Blogger Barry Leiba had this to say...

He really misses [the mailman on] the days when [he] doesn't come.


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