Negatives

27 09 2010

On an online forum, I recently spotted the following critique: “I feel that this article marks a new low point in the development of [x] as a blog encouraging the intellectual ‘ghettoisation’ of the community.” One of the editors of the blog, in criticising this critique, responded (in part) thus: “… the number of negatives in this sentence makes it difficult to understand your intended meaning.” This is an interesting observation, given that there is not so much as one negative adverb in the first correspondent’s critique.

I was immediately reminded of a series of posts on Language Log (see here for a round-up; also here, here and here) that have documented an obsession with passive verbs, along with a complete ignorance as to what they are and an almost pathological inability to identify them correctly. Was it possible that the editor of this blog – an educated man, whom I have met personally – was entirely ignorant of so elementary a feature of English grammar as to be unable to spot a negative? Was he so ill-informed as regards what a negative is that he succeeded in spotting several where none existed?

On the contrary, it turns out that he was referring to a negative opinion, rather than a syntactic negative. In defending himself (yes, I took the time to comment upon it and draw it to his attention), he noted that “if this article marks a new low in intellectual ghettoisation, then surely that must be a good thing in [correspondent]’s view, assuming [correspondent] considers intellectual ghettoisation a bad thing”. Now we’re cookin’!

If the blog in question is developing as an encouragement to the intellectual ghettoisation of the community, then would a low point be low in relation to the blog’s aims, or low in the correspondent’s estimation? This is an interesting semantic point, although I disagree with the tongue-in-cheek response that it merited: it is not difficult to understand it at all. The simple dictates of reading make it necessary to consider the tone of the statement alongside the words that convey it, and it is rather obvious that the initial correspondent was deriding the blog, rather than praising it. Indeed, were the editor genuinely uncertain, he would not have responded to it with acerbity. My only further query that concerns what he wrote relates to how two negatives were referred to as “[a] number of negatives”, which to me would denote several. But that’s clearly a rhetorical issue, so I shan’t press my point.

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