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This one has bugged me for years.

When an American English speaker wishes to express regret that Joe doesn't come around any more, they would typically say, "I really miss having him around."

It seems that it's common for British English speakers, however, to say, "I really miss not having him around," when they mean the same thing. To me, this sounds like exactly the opposite of what they mean to say.

"Having him around" is what we regret the lack of, is it not? So why negate that, essentially saying you regret the lack of "not having him around" implying that he IS around and you liked it better when he wasn't.

Can anybody explain why the British construction makes any sense? Is there some difference of interpretation in the meaning of the word "miss"?

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I haven't heard this before, but it reminds me of "I could care less". –  Mitch Schwartz Dec 24 '10 at 19:55
By the way, I've never been to the UK, so my writing "I haven't heard this before" was not meant to challenge the notion that this is a common British saying. (I'm from the US but prefer UK quote conventions.) –  Mitch Schwartz Dec 24 '10 at 22:34
Ugh, I could care less drives me nuts! Makes no sense! –  Cam Jackson Sep 1 '11 at 7:26

3 Answers 3

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Firstly, this isn't a specifically British construction, nor is it the standard in British English. It's just a nonstandard variant that occasionally occurs in both American and British English. (More on that later below.)

As for an explanation of why it is used, I guess some people either understand the word "miss" differently than we do, or just aren't thinking clearly.

A different understanding of "miss":

"I miss not having him around" seems like a cross between "I miss him" and "I regret not having him around". The standard meaning of "I miss X" (in our context) is something like "I feel a sense of absence or loss because X used to be around and isn't any longer", thus "I miss having him around". Some people appear to be extending/inverting it to "I feel a sense or absence or loss because of X" (see the quote *"I miss that he is not around any more" in the other answer) thus for these speakers, "I miss not having him around" means "I feel a sense of something missing because of not having him around."

You can see this most clearly in the American examples:

"Do you miss not having children?"
"I feel that as an only child she may miss not having siblings later on, as an adult."

where there is talk of missing things that one never had, and

Q: Do you miss not having hands and feet?
A: Well, I've never had them.

Here the question uses "miss" in the nonstandard sense ("do you feel something missing because of not having hands and feet", a rather daft question), while the answer, having ignored the not (and the literal meaning), treats "miss" in the standard sense: I can't miss something I've never had.

As for why this different sense comes about, I guess there's a strong temptation, in phrases involving counterfactuals, to state the factual instead. (I suspect something similar was at work in the origin of "could care less", sometimes claimed to be sarcastic though it's not.)

Not thinking clearly:

This actually happens naturally in language. It's not unique to this phrase; there's a small amount of confused inversion in many phrases involving negatives:

  • People frequently say "You can't fail to miss it" when they mean "you can't fail to see it" or "you can't miss it".
  • They say "No one can deny that X is not the best" when they mean "No one can deny that X is the best" or "No one can claim that X is not the best"
  • They say "No head injury is too trivial to ignore" when they mean "No head injury is so trivial that it can be ignored", or "No head injury is too trivial to take seriously".
  • Even laywers get it wrong, and
  • The non-logical usages are often far more common

I guess that, with time, "miss not" will join the list of phrases like "could care less", "doesn't know squat", and "teach you to", where a negation can be added or removed with no change in meaning. So this inverted usage of "miss" may well become standard, and it will only be considered to add to the glorious irrationalities of the English language. (In the Corpus of Historical American English, usages of "miss not" before 1968 are mostly the "correct" one, while 1968 and later has mostly the usage you asked about in the question.)

Usage patterns

Corpora indicate it may even occur more often in American English than British English, though more below.

The British National Corpus has only five instances of this usage, all from fiction: "we miss not having your funny face around to laugh at", "I miss not having one", "D'you miss not drinking very much?", "Did you miss not 'aving me to talk to?", and one that, interestingly enough, uses both the "miss not" and "miss" constructions in a single sentence:

"I often think I miss not having someone with whom to share the joys of Dickie, far more than I miss having someone with whom to share my worries."

The Corpus of Contemporary American English, however, has 20 instances of such usage (leaving out phrases like "miss not only…"), from news, spoken TV programmes, magazines, fiction, etc., e.g.: "BH: Do you miss not having children? Calhoun: Yes. You know I love kids", "Do you ever miss not having a daddy?", "I will miss not being able to walk Christie down the aisle", "I miss not having the late Red Auerbach to answer such vital questions", "I miss not being able to talk to people in the market", "I miss not being in a more cosmopolitan city", "'Do you miss not having hands and feet?' Well, I've never had them.", "I miss not being able to see my friends' faces", "I miss not having my dog around", "I feel that as an only child she may miss not having siblings later on, as an adult.", "I kind of miss not being able to drop by my parents' house during the week", "Cmdr. VERNOSKI: Listen, do you miss not having my long hair on the rug? Col. VERNOSKI: Absolutely! I miss not having your long hair in my hands."

It does contain one "correct" usage of "miss not" as you and I seem to understand it:

about having the disease? […] I miss not having to think about this. I miss just going to work and leading…

Of course, probably the two corpora aren't the same size, but I don't (from looking at them) see any clear justification for calling it a British construction. And from the relatively small number of instances, it seems less frequent than the "miss having…" variant.

Another way of looking at them is through Google n-gram viewer. I don't think this is extremely reliable, but worth looking.

Here are "miss having" and "miss not having" in American English: alt text

And in British English: alt text

Similarly, here are "miss being" and "miss not being" in American English: alt text

And in British English: alt text

So from the data it seems (look at the numbers on the y-axis carefully) that "miss not being" and "miss not having" are used at about the same frequency in both American and British English. But "miss having/being" are used much more in American English, so the "miss not" forms are more common in British English relative to the standard forms. Still, less frequent. (This is a crude search without context, so all the caveats apply.)

Edit [2011-11-23]: The Language Log has had around 75 posts on this very topic. It has been enlightening reading several of them, but I am too exhausted to summarise them here, and I recommend you to read those posts directly.

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I like this: "... just aren't thinking clearly". –  Cerberus Dec 26 '10 at 4:20
Very comprehensive review. Thank you. –  JIP Jan 9 '11 at 6:24
The sentence "I miss not having siblings" really means you can't stand your siblings and you wish they weren't there. Maybe not what the speaker meant. –  gnasher729 Mar 25 at 12:55

It hadn't occurred to me that this was yet another of the mismatches between British and American English. I'll vouch that something pretty close to this is used on occasion in Britain.

It's not so easy to explain the construct - it might even be one of the indefensible constructs that just gets used even so.

The sense is intended to be "I miss that he is not around any more", pointing out the negative "he is not here/around", and that "I missing him". Maybe it is based on "I miss that I'm not having him around any more".

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Even a construction like "I miss that he is not around any more" is new to me. You can miss something, but how can you miss that something (especially when the latter something is something true)? –  ShreevatsaR Dec 25 '10 at 6:10
@ShreevatsaR: Who said language was logical? I'm doing my best to explain what is probably inexplicable. –  Jonathan Leffler Dec 25 '10 at 6:23
I wasn't criticising you. :-) Just expressing my surprise at an unfamiliar construction. –  ShreevatsaR Dec 25 '10 at 6:31
I think I have heard it before, and I expect that I was surprised at the time. +1 For "indefensible", which I am hoping you got from Fowler. "I mis that I'm not having him around any more" is not a great example of what it might be based on: rather, "I miss him, [now that I am] not having him around any more", or "I miss him: I hate not having him around any more". –  Cerberus Dec 26 '10 at 4:19

I think it would come down to whether you consider miss a negative or not, as opposed to the yanks I guess in England we don't consider it to be. We therefore add a not, if both were then it would be a double negative.

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