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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.
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