Can the sentence Dan Brown isn't my favourite writer for no reason mean that he is in fact my favourite writer?

The context is that someone else had just pointed out how thrilling she found Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.

  • No it simply means that you have no specific reason that Dan Brown is not your favourite author. You may have another author whose work you like more. It may mean that you have never read any of his works, etc. – Gary's Student Jun 18 '18 at 14:35
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    A professor once told his class that, while a double negative in an English sentence is sometimes interpreted as an affirmative, there were no circumstances where two affirmatives would create a negative. To which one of his students replied "Yeah, right!" – Hot Licks Jun 18 '18 at 15:03
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    I disagree with @Gary'sStudent; there are obviously two possible interpretations. However, with the given context in mind, I'd lean towards yours as the more salient one. I interpret the sentence as suggesting that he isn't her favorite writer for just no reason, but for a good reason. – user71740 Jun 18 '18 at 15:24
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    I would understand Dan Brown isn't my favourite writer for no reason to mean that Mr Brown is "my favorite writer", and that I have good reasons for him to be so in my estimation. But the sentence is a rather convoluted and difficult-to-understand way of saying so. It would be clear to say "I have good reasons for considering Dan Brown my favorite writer." IMHO. – tautophile Jun 18 '18 at 17:09
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    Personally, I interpret it exactly as @tautophile: It isn't for no reason that Dan Brown is my favourite author. But I do agree that it's ambiguous and could taken in different ways by different people. (As is obvious from the comments and replies.) – Jason Bassford Jun 18 '18 at 17:34

The statement is ambiguous. It first seemed to me to mean that Dan Brown wasn't your favorite author, but you had no reason for that. The more subtle interpretation is that Dan Brown is your favorite author, and there is a reason for it (i.e. not for no reason). This is actually a more elegant reading, but it's not clear that is what is meant.

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    Your “subtle” interpretation is how I read it. And it seems clear that that is the intent based on the context provided. – Jim Jun 18 '18 at 17:33
  • Good point about context. Also, I think a comma after "writer" would force the negative interpretation, but the lack of one tends to indicate the positive. Nevertheless, it's a large burden for a non-comma to bear. – Steve Smith Jun 18 '18 at 18:00

A sentence with two negations is ambiguous, depending on the scopes of the two negative elements. For instance,

  • He didn't arrive on time for no reason.

has two meanings:

  1. There was no reason for his lateness.
  2. There was a reason for his lateness.

This is because the scope of no reason in (1) is outside the scope of didn't arrive, whereas the reverse is true in (2), which would have quite a different intonation pattern in speech, implying knowledge of a hidden motive.

Contrary to popular myth, two negatives do not cancel out each other just because they're in the same sentence, unless they apply to exactly the same constituents with exactly the right scoping. This is pretty rare, in fact. More negatives simply create more ambiguity.

In the OQ example, the scopes are arrayed a little differently, and since Dan Brown is a good example of a terrible writer, I got one of them immediately, paraphrased

  • Dan Brown is not my favorite author, and there's at least one reason for that.

The other meaning is less likely:

  • Dan Brown is not my favorite author, and there's no reason for that.

because favorite implies some decision already, thus justifying a reason.

Note that there is an invited inference in some of these senses of irony or hidden meanings in other contexts. These are all common effects of negation, which depends on listener presuppositions.

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