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When typing a sentence, accidentally dropping a word is much more common than accidentally adding a word. I do it often enough in long emails that I have to double check any important draft before I send it.

Is there a term that describes the class of words that, if accidentally dropped, completely invert the meaning of the sentence while the sentence retains grammatical and contextual validity?

For example, not, just and if would exist in this "class" of words:

  • Dropping not: "The 1930s were not Germany's finest political period" becomes "The 1930s were Germany's finest political period".
  • Dropping just: "Designing space-age rockets was not just hard; it was cool" becomes "Designing space-age rockets was not hard; it was cool".
  • Dropping if: "If the briefcase is his, you will execute the spy" becomes "The briefcase is his, you will execute the spy".
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How about crucial? –  Jim Oct 16 '13 at 8:16
+1 for excellent examples :D –  npst Oct 16 '13 at 8:50
@EdwinAshworth Naturally the words belong to different primary categories but the question remains whether linguists have a term for words or the writing phenomena of words that are especially capable of inverting meaning (or in the case of if, changing not p to not not p but not into p, maybe) without being detected by proof readers (other than the original author) –  LateralFractal Oct 16 '13 at 9:23
Not is a negator and its omission would be bound to invert the meaning. As in the 'Sinners' Bible' with the problematic 'Thou shalt commit adultery'. Just (merely , simply ) are limiting modifiers. Omitting one of these when used after 'not' will 'cause inversion'. Omitting an even would not invert, though. Your example with 'If' does not invert but confirm what was a possibility. You also create a comma splice. –  Edwin Ashworth Oct 16 '13 at 9:24
I have another example of inverting meaning: "I said it with malice" but "I said it without malice." –  Mari-Lou A Oct 17 '13 at 21:29
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2 Answers 2

up vote 2 down vote accepted

There are really two concepts at play here. The first is logical negation:

In logic, negation, also called logical complement, is an operation that essentially takes a proposition p to another proposition "not p", written ¬p, which is interpreted intuitively as being true when p is false and false when p is true.

So what you define as "invert the meaning" is logical negation and is possible whenever negation is added or removed from a sentence. This covers two of your examples:

Dropping not: "The 1930s were not Germany's finest political period" becomes "The 1930s were ... Germany's finest political period".

Dropping just: "Designing space-age rockets was not just hard; it was cool" becomes "Designing space-age rockets was not ... hard; it was cool".

The latter is an issue of "just" moving the negation from "just" to "hard". The problem word is still not; it isn't just.

Other examples of this sort are adding or removing "un" or "a" from the beginning of a word:

I have been incredibly (un)kind.

How (a)typical!

The third example is really not the same kind of problem as your first two examples.

Dropping if: "If the briefcase is his, you will execute the spy" becomes "... The briefcase is his, you will execute the spy".

Dropping if doesn't invert the meaning of the sentence in the same way. Inverting the sentence using negation would be either:

If the briefcase is his, you will not execute the spy.

If the briefcase is not his, you will execute the spy.

Which means that we need a different type of classification. In this case, the problem is due to removing a conditional and turning the result into a non-conditional command. Other mistakes of the same kind:

I looked at Alice and said, "Bob, kiss me!"

I looked at Alice and said, "Kiss me!"

From Wikipedia:

Conditional sentences are sentences expressing factual implications, or hypothetical situations and their consequences. They are so called because the validity of the main clause of the sentence is conditional on the existence of certain circumstances, which may be expressed in a dependent clause or may be understood from the context.

If you remove the conditional part of the sentence the whole meaning changes -- or in your words, inverts.

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As the risk of drifting into PhD level linguistics I certainly don't understand or possess: Are if and similar conditionals in an organic natural language like English actually classical logical operators or intuitionistic logical operators? For if logic and implication with English sentence construction is intuitionistic instead of classical, then (¬p and p) isn't true in all cases and one implication/conditional branch will invert more than the other. –  LateralFractal Oct 17 '13 at 23:16
At the risk of oversimplifying, English is intuitionistic. It certainly isn't classical logical because word definitions are inherently fluid and somewhat subjective. But even beyond that, trying to apply any form of logical constriction is futile when you try to map out the entire context of spoken or written words. The same sentence can mean drastically different things when the timing, environment, speaker, listener, tone, etc. are changed. –  MrHen Oct 18 '13 at 0:14
In lieu of a description that covers both condition-inversion and logical inversion; I'll accept your answer. –  LateralFractal Oct 18 '13 at 0:17
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This question, IMO, is like looking for Bible codes. You could arrange the linearity alignment of the Hebrew characters, and you could come out with any hind-sight prophecy you wish to conjure.

For example,

  • This house is on fire vs This house is fire.
  • Where are the people going? vs Where are the people?
  • How is she lying? vs How is she?
  • I am very happy, to see you vs I am very happy, see you

All I can say is ... typographical ommission.

You can't make a generic term out of a phenomenon that is so random. It's like asking, is there a generic term for these items?

shoe, stars, air, Christianity, Haliburton, mangosteen, Lindsay Lohan, disbelief

Almost every word in English is typographically significant under varying circumstances. The generic phrase you wish to use to advise people is, the usual

Please avoid the usual errors due to typographical omission.

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While your examples demonstrate that any sentence is altered if a word is omitted, they don't illustrate a single word dropped inverting the meaning of the sentence, which is specifically what the question asks about. –  Andrew Leach Oct 16 '13 at 8:55
Well a lot of those examples would clue the reader if the sentence was altered in a larger body of work as the semantic description has also changed; while an inversion might not be obvious if it's only instance of the given assertion. So I'll hold off for now, in hope of a linguistic term for this class of tricksy words. –  LateralFractal Oct 16 '13 at 8:59
Then the advice should be modified to "Please avoid context inversion errors due to typographical omission". The keyword word would be "contextual inversion". –  Blessed Geek Oct 16 '13 at 9:01
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