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Fowler (1926) criticized the position of unlike in:

M. Berger, however, does not appear to have— unlike his Russian masters— the gift of presenting female characters.

As with many negatives, the placing of unlike is important; standing where it does, it must be changed to like; unlike would be right if the phrase were shifted to before “does not appear”.

What is actually wrong with unlike in that position?

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  • Placed where shown, the parenthetical is (or should be) synonymous with 'as [we can clearly see that] his Russian masters do', necessitating 'like'. Placed before 'does not ...' it is replaceable by 'and this is where he differs from his Russian masters'. Sep 19 at 18:01
  • It seems Fowler want to read it like this: Berger does not have (like his Russian masters, who do have) the gift. I read it like this: Berger does not have (unlike his Russian masters, who do have) the gift. Both of those mean the same thing; however, once you remove who do have, Fowler's version appears to mean the opposite: Berger does not have (like his Russian masters) the gift. Unlike makes it much clearer that whatever the Russian masters have, Berger does not have — no matter where it appears in the sentence. Sep 19 at 23:25
  • @TinfoilHat B does not have (like his, who do have) it: what does like mean and refer to here?
    – GJC
    Sep 19 at 23:32
  • Not quite sure what you're asking... but Berger does not have (like his Russian masters) the gift means the same as Like his Russian masters, Berger does not have the gift. The opposite of the intent. Sep 20 at 0:11
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The biggest problem is that it is ambiguous whether unlike describes "have ... the gift" or "does not appear to have ... the gift". Logically, this problem shouldn't be resolved by changing "unlike" to "like", but "like" binds more closely with "have" in this instance.

The deeper issue is that employing multiple negations that are only indirectly related is cognitively difficult, or at least not as easy as using at most one negation or using directly-related or completely unrelated negations.

Compare:

  • George went home. (No negations - easy.)
  • George didn't go home. (One negation - still easy.)
  • George didn't not go home. (Two directly-related negations - takes a moment, but not too hard.)
  • George didn't go home without his hat. (Two unrelated negations, not too hard.)
  • George didn't go home by not taking his bus. (Two indirectly-related negations. A bit of a head-scratcher.)

There's nothing wrong grammatically with the last example (or any of the above examples), but the indirectly-related negations introduce several grammatical possibilities that need to be considered.

Even the parsing is ambiguous:

  • George didn't (go home by not taking his bus).
  • George (didn't go home) by (not taking his but).

Then there's the question of how "by" interacts with "not taking his bus" - means? manner? purpose?

Your Russian masters example carries similar kinds of grammatical and semantic ambiguities.

Based on what I read of Fowler when doing some research for another question some time ago, I have the impression that clarity of speech was very important to him. As such, it would not be surprising for him to criticise such an awkward construction.

At @WS2’s suggestion, here’s an unambiguous, simplified version of the Russian masters example:

  • Unlike his Russian masters, Mr Berger is in gifted at ....
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  • so in this example it's meaning is ambiguous between "his Russian masters appear to have it"; is there any example using unlike where the ambiguity would result in "his Russian masters (don't) appear to have it" ?
    – GJC
    Sep 19 at 17:03
  • @GJC By definition, ambiguity embraces both possibilities. That's what causes the problem.
    – Lawrence
    Sep 19 at 17:07
  • +1 But I think your answer would benefit from a positive suggestion as to how to structure the OP's sentence. My preference would be Unlike his Russian masters, M. Berger does not appear to have the gift of.... There is no ambiguity there is there.
    – WS2
    Sep 19 at 17:50
  • @WS2 Thanks! I’ve added a simplified positive example.
    – Lawrence
    Sep 20 at 8:03
-1

In my opinion there is no grammatical problem and hardly any problem of style. What could be remarked is a first degree of difficulty in understanding, as explained in this answer.

‘M. Berger, however, does not appear to have — unlike his Russian masters — the gift of presenting female characters.

The preposition occurs in the following sentence in a slightly different syntactic context: the phrase that it introduces is set off by commas instead of dashes or parentheses, and it does not split the predicate.

(ref.) Unlike the French, we did not revise the calendar to rid it of every element of a religious tradition — beginning the year at the autumnal equinox, ...

It is fairly clear that in this sentence what is meant is that the French did revise the calendar. Perhaps this seems sufficiently clear because of the more frequent form of the sentence, so that the problematic occurrence of several negations has been smoothed over. There is, however, no fundamental grammatical difference between this sentence and the following two: whatever the means for introducing a pause the meaning must be the same.

  • We — unlike the French — did not revise the calendar to rid it of every element of a religious tradition — beginning the year at the autumnal equinox, ...

  • We (unlike the French) did not revise the calendar to rid it of every element of a religious tradition — beginning the year at the autumnal equinox, ...

It must be concluded that, for the sentence in the query, the same type of conclusion obtains: the Russian masters did appear to have the gift of presenting female characters. I do not believe that there is an ambiguity (as claimed in the answer referred to above),I believe on the contrary that the negative force of the preposition has to bear upon the whole verbal phrase.

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  • I agree with LPH, removing the sub-clause "- unlike his Russian masters -" yields the unambiguous phrase that M. Berger did not appear to have the gift of presenting female characters. Adding the clause back in merely add the information that his Russian master did have that ability. Sep 23 at 3:30

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