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Given the two separate facts:

  • John Doe is an uninteresting name.

  • Usain Bolt is an interesting name.

which of the following statements is correct:

A - "John Doe is an uninteresting name. Usain Bolt is"

or

B - "John Doe is an uninteresting name. Usain Bolt isn't"

In other words, why does the following equation seem true?

"John Doe is an uninteresting name. Usain Bolt is" = "John Doe is not an interesting name. Usain Bolt is."

(even though they are logically different).

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Where is the question? If OP still has a doubt, @Andrew Leach has clarified. Voting to close as a non-question. –  Kris Sep 4 '12 at 12:46
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The choice is difficult. Logically it should be "Usain Bolt isn't_ [an uninteresting name]." but separating the 2nd sentence with ellipsis from the first full sentence leads you to think of the property in question as 'interesting' rather than 'uninteresting'. Also, it is easier to emphasize 'is' instead of 'isn't'. –  Mitch Sep 4 '12 at 12:56
    
The OP did not use question word order, but the first sentence is clearly intended to be a question: "Which of the following statements A must utter to say: X" ==> "Which of the following statements must A utter to say: X?" –  user21497 Sep 4 '12 at 12:57
    
@Kris: You could say the question is so basic it should be closed as General Reference, but it's hardly a "non-question". In most contexts, there's no difference between "This is not interesting" and "This is uninteresting". Unless you want to say the same about "that" in the same sentence, in which case the first version has to be continued with "and nor is that", or something similar. –  FumbleFingers Sep 4 '12 at 12:58
    
Using the "un" prefix is often an ungood way of speaking/writing because it dilutes your meaning. Don't let Big Brother win the war on language! –  DAWR Sep 4 '12 at 18:08
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3 Answers

up vote 25 down vote accepted

Your equation is not true.

For Usain Bolt to be an interesting name, the ellipsis is

John Doe is an uninteresting name. Usain Bolt isn't [an uninteresting name].

In your equation, the ellipsis again omits the noun, but this time it's a different noun.

John Doe is not an interesting name. Usain Bolt is [an interesting name].

When you omit the noun in ellipsis, it must remain the same noun as was previously referenced. Consequently "John Doe is an uninteresting name. Usain Bolt is" makes no sense. You would need "Usain Bolt is too," which isn't what you want to say.

In each case, to reverse the previous sentence, since the noun must remain the same it is the verb which must change.

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'...is too' ? Doesn't that mean '... is [uninteresting] also' ? –  Mitch Sep 4 '12 at 12:53
    
Yes. That's why it's not what the OP wants to say. –  Andrew Leach Sep 4 '12 at 12:55
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I basically agree with Andrew Leach. (And I upvoted him. :-) Let me add a few words too long to fit in a comment.

When you omit words from a sentence in this manner, as Andrew says, the reader can only assume that you meant the same words as in the previous clause or sentence. "John Doe is an uninteresting name. Usain Bolt is." The reader can only assume you mean "Usain Bolt is an uninteresting name." Which of course isn't what you are trying to say.

Prefixing a word with "un" is not the same as saying "not". It's a new word. It is perfectly reasonable to say that something is "not uninteresting". Indeed, saying something is "is not uninteresting" is not necessarily the same as saying that it "is interesting". It would be taken as much milder. I am reminded of the time that a friend of mine said to a woman that she was "not unattractive". I laughed and told him that he must be a real hit with the ladies when he used that sort of grand flattery. Telling someone she "is not ugly" is not the same as saying she "is pretty", and his comment was basically saying the former.

Update

RE David Schwartz comment

If the "rule" was not that when words are omitted like this, the reader assumes that the omitted words are the same as those found in the previous clause or sentence, how could it be clear from context? How would the reader know what to fill in?

In this case, you are thinking that the reader should/could assume that you mean "Usain Bolt is an interesting name." But how would he know that your point is that Usain Bolt is the opposite of John Smith, and not the same? Just because you think Usain Bolt is an obviously interesting name doesn't mean your reader does. Perhaps where he comes from there are more people named Usain Bolt than there are people named John Smith. Perhaps he finds the noble trade of blacksmith fascinating, and his religious faith is deeply inspired by the Gospel of John, but he sees nothing interesting in either Usain or Bolt.

More realistically, take a case that is not about words themselves. Suppose you wrote, "John Smith is a tall man. Usain Bolt is. Fred Stover is. Roger Miller is." Could you safely assume that the reader would instantly grasp that you mean "Usain Bolt is short. Fred Stover is of average height. Roger Miller is a dwarf." How would he know? The only way he could tell "from context" is if you had already told him the heights of these people earlier, in which case this sentence is superfluous.

Maybe there are cases where someone could figure out things like this from context. But the point of writing is supposed to be to convey information to the reader, not to make him guess what you meant.

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+1 This is definitely a useful addition, as it does explain how the original confusion might arise. –  Andrew Leach Sep 4 '12 at 16:19
    
What is it that forces the reader to assume you mean the same words and prevents the reader from figuring out what you meant when it's clear from context? –  David Schwartz Sep 4 '12 at 23:06
    
@DavidSchwartz I have a long reply, so I added it to my post above. –  Jay Sep 5 '12 at 14:04
    
@Jay: I completely disagree with you. Meaning is almost always determined by context. Readers always have to figure out what you mean. "Each room has two cabinets. The nurses store clean sheets and blankets in them." Does "them" refer to the cabinets or the nurses? Are the blankets also clean? It's all determined by context. There is no rule that the elided words must be the same. Context determines the elided words. (And there might be some context where someone would understand that to mean the nurses keep the sheets and blankets in themselves. Grammar is not unambiguous nor should it be.) –  David Schwartz Sep 5 '12 at 17:26
    
@DavidSchwartz It's certainly true that all meaning is, to one extent or another, determined by context. What I am saying is that IN THIS SORT OF CASE, it is very unlikely that context would allow the reader to determine that whether you meant X or not-X. Take this specific case. "Usain Bolt is." How would the reader know whether you meant "interesting" or "uninteresting", absent a rule that we assume you meant "same as the last thing I said"? (Other than the reader deciding for himself whether he considers this name interesting, in which case you are conveying no information at all.) –  Jay Sep 5 '12 at 17:33
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No, the equation is not true. Double negatives are not allowed in formal standard English, only in dialect and song lyrics and folk tales: "The tar baby, he don't say nothin'." And "I ain't got nobody that I can depend on", a blues song recorded by Bessie Smith and Carlos Santana (not together) and many others.

"John Doe is not an interesting name. Usain Bolt is." is the correct English to express the ideas in sentences 1 and 2. I would add the conjunction "but" between those two sentences, though: John Doe isn't an interesting name, but Usain Bolt is.

"John Doe is an uninteresting name. Usain Bolt is." is not the correct English for sentence 1 and 2.

"John Doe is an uninteresting name. Usain Bolt isn't." is grammatical English and the meaning is clear, but it's not good style because it expresses a positive -- "Usain Bolt is an interesting name" -- in a negative way; however, context might make that acceptable.

"Still, using a double negative in formal prose is a definite no-no (!) and will lead only to confusion for most readers, who will try to reconfigure the double negative into something algebraically positive." Grammar of double negatives

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It's not that I don't understand your point, but I think you massively overstate the case against "double negatives". –  FumbleFingers Sep 4 '12 at 13:02
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To @FumbleFingers point, the label 'double negative' refers in English to the vernacular/informal usage of '...don't have none...' instead of '...don't have any...'. Formal English allows two negations, either two semantically 'He is not unlike a bank clerk', or grammatically 'He is not going to not succeed', each can be used as a litote (understatement) or as a strict logical two-negatives-make-a-positive. –  Mitch Sep 4 '12 at 13:20
    
@Mitch: I know - that's why I wrote "double negative" in quotes. But I made the comment mainly because I don't think OP's question has really got anything to do with double negatives by any definition. It's just a matter of exactly what words are assumed to be elided after ", but Usain Bolt is/isn't". –  FumbleFingers Sep 4 '12 at 13:43
    
@f You're right that I used the wrong term and should not have posted the answer because it's not about double negatives. My mistake. But you're flat out wrong about my massively overstating the case about double negatives. The late Prof Darling, founder of the ccc.commnet.edu/grammar Website, made the statement that I quoted verbatim. I don't see my imprimatur anywhere. However, I do agree with Darling. YMMV. –  user21497 Sep 5 '12 at 3:52
    
@M Yes, formal English allows double negation, as in your examples "'He is not unlike a bank clerk', or grammatically 'He is not going to not succeed'". But, in my empirical world, neither is instantly clear, neither is intended to communicate information about "He", and neither is good style in a standard context. Both sentences are about how clever the speaker/writer is and are proof of Darling's pudding: "... most readers, who will try to reconfigure the double negative into something algebraically positive." –  user21497 Sep 5 '12 at 4:01
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