The photo caption in a recent New York Times article stated the following:

"Artist rendering. This is not a photo of Johnny Depp with his best friend who is a lizard!"

I believe that the writer wished to communicate that Johnny Depp is not best friends with a lizard and that the image included in the article is an artist's rendering, not a photo. However, the caption makes it sound like it's true that Johnny Depp's best friend is a lizard, but false that the image in the article is a photo of them together. Is the original caption correct? If not, is there a grammatical way of concisely expressing the intended meaning in a single sentence?

Ignoring the fact that the first two words are not a complete sentence, I considered:

"Artist rendering. This is not a photo of Johnny Depp with his best friend who is not a lizard!"

However, this seems confusing and still implies that the best friend exists (and is simply of a non-lizard species), which is not necessarily true. What is the appropriate way to negate the untrue parts of the sentence?

  • Since the article and headline are tongue-in-cheek, I suspect the ambiguity is intended.
    – Jim Mack
    Nov 20 '18 at 23:15
  • It makes no sense to ask for a "way to negate the untrue parts of the sentence" when the sentence describes a doctored (untrue) image that is overtly acknowledged to depict an untrue situation. Perhaps you might redefine the problem as how to express a negation of a statement that itself includes a negation. Nov 21 '18 at 3:09

"a" is ambiguous between "any" and "some". If it is within the scope of negation, it means "any". Put "any" for the "a" in "a lizard" if you want the sense to be that the preceding "not" includes the "is a lizard" predicate.

In Constraints on Variables in Syntax, John Ross points out that the influence of a negation extends to the interpretation of "any" downwards in the structure through an unbounded number of indefinite relative clause constructions: "Hank would not accept any offer from any waiter in any restaurant in any neighborhood of Chicago of any hotdog with any ketchup on it, for fear of reprisals." (Ross's example was better than mine.)

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