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Don't fail to miss it

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April  January 30, 2007 09:23 PM

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In the last line of today's item on pornography, Evan has a nice example of undernegation.

Acknowledging that it won't be stopped isn't reason to point out that it should be.

He means (as readers surely understood) that acknowledging the permanence of porn is no reason not to oppose it. But it's not unusual to find one too few negations, or one too many, in expressions like this -- not just in unedited blog posts or e-mails, but in cold print, too.

"Been quite a season for mold," observed the Globe Handyman last summer. "Who has not escaped?" (Meaning "Who has escaped?")

And a Times story last winter had this sentence: "Although the Party Ride is a crowd pleaser, it would be misleading to suggest that the experience is not without its bumps." (Meaning "it would be misleading to suggest that the experience is without bumps.)

And even the best publications use "still unpacked" to mean "still not unpacked" – "a duffel bag still unpacked from a recent trip," for instance. After Geoff Nunberg kicked off a discussion about "still unpacked" at Language Log in 2005, the construction turned out to be so common that some linguists doubted it could be called a mistake.

Most faulty negations float by unnoticed, of course. Like the editors who missed them in the first place, readers fill in the intended sense and move on. "I'll miss not seeing my friends," says the retiring colleague, and nobody bats an eye. Only "I could care less" reliably gets a rise out of the blue-pencil brigade. Could it be that what they really object to isn't the grammar, but the attitude?

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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