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I’m wondering if there’s a term that linguists or rhetoricians use for this (semantic?) phenomenon.

In both cases, it seems as though ‘not’ no longer expresses the mere absence or negation of what it modifies, but instead expresses the polar opposite of what it modifies. It's as if someone could say “My car is not black” to mean “My car is white”, “It’s not a terrible movie” to mean “It’s an excellent movie”, or “I don’t love you” to mean “I hate you”.

I recognize that there is something similar to this that is a mere matter of ad hoc irony, understatement, or litotes, often accompanied with a special tone of voice or facial expression (“He’s not exactly a brain surgeon, is he?”, “That test was no picnic”). But what I’m asking about seems to be a fixed part of the language and can be found in extremely dry and mechanical writing: “Use of this product in XYZ way is not recommended”. (Is it just fossilized litotes?)

Thanks for your help!

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    There's no such thing as mere negation. It's a very important constituent of language, logic, and communication. What you refer to goes under many names in the literature: Negative-Raising is the difference between I don't think he's here and I don't claim he's here -- the first means the same with the negative downstairs - I think he's not here - but the second doesn't. Another phenomenon is Gricean implicatures, like He tried to open it implicating failure ("if that's all you can say"). Check out sources on Negation. Apr 8, 2023 at 17:04
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    @JohnLawler - When I said “mere absence or negation”, I didn’t intend to suggest that negation is unimportant. I merely intended to contrast it with “express[ing] the polar opposite”. When you say that there’s no such thing as mere negation, are you saying that this apparent contrast isn't a real contrast? Apr 8, 2023 at 17:36
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    @JohnLawler: I always think it's odd that to many/most Americans, I could care less means the same as the logically straightforward British version I couldn't care less. As ever, BrE is tending to fall in line with the dominant culture, but I still struggle with that one. Apr 8, 2023 at 18:12
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    @JohnLawler - After further research and some help from other commenters, I’ve concluded that the phenomenon I'm referring to is typically called “Neg-raising” (as in Laurence R. Horn's chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Negation (Déprez & Espinal 2020)), and is called “subordinate negation implicature” by Huddleston and Pullum (in a discussion Horn refers to). I’m not sure what confused you about my examples. Both like and recommend are given as examples by Huddleston and Pullum, and the very similar want and suggest are given as examples by Horn. Apr 8, 2023 at 21:14
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    The old-fashioned term for this sort of phenomenon is litotes.
    – alphabet
    Apr 9, 2023 at 5:04

2 Answers 2

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Adapted from another answer of mine

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language have a subchapter covering the more general phenomenon laid out in the body of the question. It is titled "Increased specificity of negation". The rest of this post deals with cases such as those set out in the title.

  1. I don't seem to have enough time.

  2. I seem to not have enough time.

Short answer:

Some verbs that take clauses as complements create subordinate negation implicatures. This means that in a [verb] + [clause] combination, if we negate the verb, we imply the same meaning as if we had negated the complement clause. So, for example, the sentence "I do not want you to go" implies "I want you to not go". This means that we can, in most circumstances choose which part to negate when dealing with these types of verb. As a general rule of thumb, English speakers prefer to have the negation as early on in the sentence as possible. This makes the sentences far easier to process.

NEG-raising is a technical term which endeavours to explain how subordinate negation implicatures arise through a grammatical transformation.


Full answer:

It is a fact known to millions of hardworking English language students all over the world that native English speakers strongly prefer negating the verbs think, believe and want, amongst others, to negating the complement clauses that they license. So, for instance, all other things being equal, we prefer:

(1). I don’t believe that the Yeti exists.

to:

(2). I believe that the Yeti doesn’t exist.

We also would tend to prefer:

  • I don’t think I’m going to find it.

to:

  • I think I’m not going to find it.

and there is absolutely no doubt that:

  • I don't want to go.

is far more customary than the rather stilted:

  • I want to not go.

Notice that what is implied by (1) is the same as what is literally encoded in (2). However, (1) does not in fact strictly semantically encode the same information as (2) at all. If we made no further pragmatic assumptions about what the speaker of (1) intended to convey, then the maximum we should be entitled to decode is that the speaker does not possess a positive creedal attitude about the existence of Yetis. It is entirely possible that the speaker may have no definite opinion about the existence or non-existence of Yetis, in which case they would not be able to truthfully commit to either a belief or disbelief in them. This might be due to an agnostic state of mind, or it may be merely because the speaker has never even thought about it. To commit the speaker of (1) to a belief in (2) is potentially doing them a great disservice.

Be that as it may, most listeners would understand (1) as conveying the same as (2), and they are indeed entitled to, because most speakers - unless they were wishing to be very explicitly technical about it - would prefer the former to the latter to convey the very same information. What is interesting here is that speakers are modifying the verb denoting the action of belief in order to manipulate the listener’s understanding of the object of the belief - the information in the complement clause. More specifically they are negating the verb denoting the believing, but implying a negation of the complement clause.

This phenomenon is known as SUBORDINATE NEGATION IMPLICATION. Verbs that tend to generate such implicatures seem to be verbs that denote states of intention, epistemic stance or opinion, or those which can be used performatively for advice. Dynamic verbs which denote actions, changes of mental states and so forth do not tend to generate these implicatures. Compare the following sentences with the dynamic verb say:

He didn't say that she danced.

He said that she didn't dance.

Here the two sentences do not convey the same information at all. We are not likely to infer the information in the second sentence when we read the first.

One more factor comes into play here. Verbs that generate subordinate negation implicatures, tend to be what are described in the CaGEL (The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Huddleston and Pullum, 2002) as medium strength verbs. They contrast for example 'stronger' know with 'medium strength' believe. The reason that these verbs tend to generate such implicatures is merely that, pragmatically, it does not seem very informative to tell somebody that you don't have a medium strength stance about something. We tacitly infer, on this basis, the more informative proposition that the speaker has a stance about a negative idea.

However, with so-called stronger verbs, on the other hand, it is informative to convey that your confidence in a stance is not 100%, or contrastingly with weak verbs to convey that that not even the slightest positive attitude is given to the proposition in the complement clause. The strong and weak usages of the following verbs do not, therefore, generate subordinate negation implicatures:

I don't know that she went. ≠ I know that she didn't go.

I don't suspect her of stealing.I suspect her of not stealing.

As to why speakers actually prefer to negate verbs such as want and believe rather than to negate their complement clauses, I do not believe that anybody knows (- by which I want you to infer that I believe that nobody knows).

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    I googled “subordinate negation implication”, but found no results outside of Stack Exchange. Do you know of any texts that use this terminology? Apr 8, 2023 at 17:39
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    I just checked my pdf copy of that text, and again “subordinate negation implication” is nowhere to be found. Are you thinking of a different text, or perhaps slightly different terminology? Apr 8, 2023 at 17:46
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    'Adapted from another answer of mine': could we have a link, please? Apr 8, 2023 at 18:04
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    Thank you! It looks like Huddleston and Pullum call the phenomenon “subordinate negation implicature” rather than “subordinate negation implication”. It also looks like most linguists discuss it under the label “Neg-raising” (for example, Laurence R. Horn's chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Negation (Déprez & Espinal 2020), which refers directly to Huddleston and Pullum’s discussion). Apr 8, 2023 at 21:13
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    The addition of adverbs to such constructs can often avoid the "neg-raising" tendencies of the verbs. Saying "I don't particularly want to go" means my desire to go is not stronger than my desire to do other things, but doesn't imply active opposition to the idea of going.
    – supercat
    Apr 10, 2023 at 21:55
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You are trying to deal with a complicated range of phenomena. To generalise your question, you seem to be interested that sometimes "A is not f" means simply that the proposition "A is not f" false and no more than that, while, at other times "A is not f" means "A is g" (where g is the polar opposite of f, rather than merely its contradictory). Contradictory is a logical term from what you explain.

You are right about there being a distinction of this kind. To some extent, the distinction depends on context. An example of this is, in fact, the sentence "A is not good". If we are dealing with, say, the evaluation of schools or books, where they are rated 'excellent', 'good', 'satisfactory', 'unsatisfactory', and I say "Super Duper Academy is not good", nothing follows, except possibly it is unlikely to be excellent either. If it had been, you might think it a bit perverse of me to leave it at "SDA is not good". But in a more general context "A is not good" does indeed imply that A is worse than just OK, if you are British. Similarly, you can serve a British guest the best dinner ever, and must not feel offended if you are rewarded with an enthusiastic "I say, that was not bad!" It is, as you say, a kind of understatement. So as a member of the British Civil Service, I was quite clear that if my boss said "It would be helpful if you can have that analysis to me for Friday", that meant "have it to me by Friday or else!".

It is not clear, more broadly, that there is a good word for the 'not good' phenomenon. Rather this is a characteristic of words with well established, automatic antonyms: good/bad, wise/foolish, fair/unfair and so forth. The denial of one pole sends a listener mentally straight to the polar opposite.

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    "Not good" is not a Britishism, in AmE (conversational) "x is not good" broadly means "x is definitely bad". There are exceptions where you might say something like "x is not good, it is great" but that is usually humorous and it's only funny because of the contrast with the normal (bad) meaning. Apr 10, 2023 at 14:59
  • @user3067860 That is probably right. However, I would still claim that the British are in general more given to understatement than Americans are.
    – Tuffy
    Apr 10, 2023 at 20:38

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