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Although gossip is not h______ chat that can make conversations exciting, it can also be a way to spread something untrue about other people.

The above sentence is taken from a larger text on the topic of 'Netiquette' - internet manners.

The text is part of an example high-school entrance exam for Chinese students from back in 2016.

Each blank must only be filled with one word. The first letter of the word is provided to help students narrow down the number of possible word choices.

According to the answer sheet, the blank is to be filled by using the word harmful, which (to me) makes very little, if any, sense at all in this structure.

I have double-checked the example's punctuation and ran the "Although gossip is not harmful chat..." search string and its permutations through both Google and Bing, in the hopes of landing a hit that could confirm or refute the usage of harmful - all to no avail.

Below is an excerpt from the text including the sentences surrounding the problematic blank.

The manners also i(nclude) not looking through others' phones and not gossiping about others over mesasges, e(specially) when you choose "reply all" to send a message to a group of people.

Although gossip is not h(armful) chat that can make conversations exciting, it can also be a way to spread something untrue about other people. Gossip can be even stronger on social media than in real life, so it's b(etter) not to gossip.

Other than this being simply a case of Chinglish, is there another explanation as to why the usage of harmful is correct here?

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    Only thing I could find Is an article on DailyMail.com about chat-rooms that raise risk of teen-age self harm. But this doesn't jibe with "that can make conversations exciting". So it is a mystery to me.
    – ab2
    Jul 18, 2017 at 3:37
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    Thanks @ab2. That's just it. It's not only the use of 'harmful' that's boggling here. Parts of the statement, like the one you've pointed out, are self-contradictory when viewed along with the rest of the sentence. The whole thing sounds off. Jul 18, 2017 at 3:50
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    If you replace "not harmful" with "harmless", the sentence does make sense. My best guess is that this is a mistranslation where someone was unaware that "not harmful" is not an appropriate synonym for innocent/harmless in this sentence. I'm quite certain it's not correct; it took me 4 read-throughs to even consider parsing the words "not harmful" as a single adjective, rather than the "not" negating the rest of the sentence. Jul 18, 2017 at 4:35
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    A number of examples have surfaced here where tests were just plain wrong, and this is one of them. IMO, @KernelPanic solved it: it should be "harmless" -- and "not" should not be there.
    – ab2
    Jul 18, 2017 at 19:33
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    I already upvoted the answer of @Flater. And I have the deepest respect for people learning English as a second language -- particularly those whose first language is in an entirely different family.
    – ab2
    Jul 20, 2017 at 4:07

2 Answers 2

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According to the answer sheet, the blank is to be filled by using the word harmful, which (to me) makes very little, if any, sense at all in this structure.

Although I disagree with the statement that is made, the structure actually makes sense.

The basic sentence structure is:

Although [A], [B].

This structure juxtaposes A and B. This means that A and B seemingly argue opposite points.

Although he is a thief, John is also a good man.
Although he is a good man, John is also a thief.

You can't definitively deduce whether A is positive and B is negative (or vice versa), but you can be sure that one of them is positive, the other is negative.


Now let's look at your example:

Although [A], [B].

[A] = gossip is not h______ chat that can make conversations exciting
[B] = it can also be a way to spread something untrue about other people

Since A is incomplete, we cannot deduce whether it's positive or negative. However, when you look at B, you see that it is clearly negative*.

Therefore, A must be positive. So "not h___" must be positive, or in other words, "h___" must be negative.

"Harmful" is negative, and therefore fits the bill.

"Harmless", while more factually correct in my opinion, would cause both A and B to both be negative, and that clashes with the sentence structure of "Although [A], [B]"


Although gossip is not harmful chat that can make conversations exciting, it can also be a way to spread something untrue about other people.

I just want to repeat here that I think the statement is completely wrong. Gossip is harmful, even when not malevolent.

But the point of the question of filling in the blank is not about filling in your opinion, but rather filling in the word that fits in the sentence.


*Unless it's a book written by Niccolò Machiavelli.


Edit

KernelPanic makes a good point in the comments. As per your request, adding it to my answer.

One should consider the sentence to be

Although gossip is (not harmful) chat that can make conversations exciting

As opposed to

Although gossip is not (harmful chat that can make conversations exciting)

The key difference is that the former example directly negates harmful, instead of harmful chat that [..].

This seems a mistake on the part of whoever wrote the example. They are technically correct (not in meaning, but grammatically), but they did not considere that the latter example is much more likely to be understood, compared to the former.

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    Alright, great! +1 for looking at it as a juxtaposition. The 'Although [A],[B],' example makes the original statement somewhat easier to digest. Jul 18, 2017 at 10:34
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    Since this is a Chinese test, it seems highly likely that the writer is Chinese, in which case the error is understandable. Most words for ‘harmless’ in Chinese actually do literally mean ‘not harmful’ or ‘no-harm’; 无害 wúhài ‘no harm’ is perhaps the most common one. Moreover, Chinese negators always precede the word they negate, so it’s unambiguous what’s negated; this is unlike English where they follow verbs but precede adjectives, leading to ambiguities like this one. Jul 20, 2017 at 8:36
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    In other words, “Although gossip is (not-harmful) chat…” = 虽然闲话是不害人的聊天儿; vs. “Although gossip (is-not) harmful chat…” = 虽然闲话不是害人的聊天儿. Jul 20, 2017 at 8:43
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    @JanusBahsJacquet: I wonder if the French word "ne" is an attempt to disambiguate in a way that English does not, but Chinese does (like you said). "Je suis" (I am) "Je ne suis pas" (I am not) "Je ne suis plus" (I am no longer). Many French speakers omit "ne" verbally, saying "Je suis pas" or "Je suis plus", but it is still very much present in written French. You can argue that "ne" is superfluous (as the message remains understandable when omitting "ne"), but the inherent disambiguation might explain why it is still part of official grammar.
    – Flater
    Jul 20, 2017 at 8:49
  • @Flater It’s not really an attempt to disambiguate anything, no—just something that is in the process of making its exit from the language. Ne is the original negator in French, meaning ‘not’; various words, mostly nouns, were added to reinforce it, like pas ‘step’ or rien ‘thing’: Il ne veut pas/rien, literally ‘he does not want a step/thing’. The original negator often tends to be lost eventually. This development is quite common (English has gone through it too) and is known as Jespersen’s Cycle. Jul 20, 2017 at 8:55
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Although gossip is not h______ chat that can make conversations exciting, it can also be a way to spread something untrue about other people.

This sentence appears to suffer from an extraneous negation ('not') and the careless use of the verb to be. I think the author meant to write something like this:

Although gossip appears to be harmless chat that can make conversations exciting, it can also be a way to spread something untrue about other people.

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    This doesn't actually answer the question, which is about part of an example high-school entrance exam. We can't rewrite the exam question, we can explain why the answer is what it is.
    – Andrew Leach
    May 8, 2021 at 16:34
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    @Andrew But the answer is, as Elise points out, that the question needs rewriting. May 14, 2021 at 18:34

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