I was looking at the book Introduction to Mathematical Thinking by Keith Devlin, and came across a question where the reader is asked to reformulate this sentence to avoid the unintended second reading:

No head injury is too trivial to ignore.

However, I couldn't really find any alternative meaning.

Any ideas about what the “unintended second meaning” might be?

  • 1
    I've taken the liberty to touch up this question, but, given that this is a site for language enthsiasts, I'd advise you to be more careful when submitting future questions. (Faux pas such as lower-case names and book titles won't make it easy for your question to be taken seriously.)
    – J.R.
    Nov 18, 2012 at 7:02
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    Since you do not say what meaning you have found, it is very difficult for anyone to give you the "other" one. I suggest that you look at the possible interpretations of No X as either "X does not exist" or "Not one of the instances of X".
    – Fortiter
    Nov 18, 2012 at 7:13
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    The phenomenon is called Overnegation and is quite common, enough to generate some work from Larry Horn. Nov 18, 2012 at 15:29
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    Compare: "No head injury is too complicated to treat" means we can treat all head injuries. "No head injury is too trivial to ignore" does not mean that we can ignore all head injuries. Nov 18, 2012 at 17:23
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    This sentence is an example of Misnegation; No, too, and ignore are all negatives, and it's not at all clear which ones have scope over which. As the old rule says, Duplex negatio confirmat, triplex negatio confundit Oct 24, 2020 at 16:16

7 Answers 7


The basic meaning is litotes, reversal of the sentence:

Every head injury is serious enough to pay attention to it.

But you can completely twist the meaning, reading it in a straightforward manner that only after you finish parsing the sentence starts appearing as making no sense:

Lack of head injury is so trivial that you can't ignore it.

Only after you notice "triviality of issue rather encourages ignoring it" - the relation is reverse, the more trivial something the more prone to ignore it you are - that's when you stop and notice this way of parsing the sentence makes no sense and you must re-parse.

The ambiguity comes from no head injury meaning none of head injuries and an absence of head injury.

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    No, the meaning you get at first glance is "you should pay attention to every head injury", but if you parse out the sentence more carefully, and suspend your knowledge of head injuries and triviality, you get "you can ignore all head injuries, because none of them are so trivial that their triviality precludes ignoring them". I think that's the duality the OP was after.
    – interfect
    Jul 27, 2014 at 5:26

What is meant is No head injury is trivial enough to ignore (or possibly Any head injury is too important to ignore). The original actually means that all head injuries should be ignored.

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    "The original actually means that all head injuries should be ignored." - How exactly did you parse the original to get that meaning? That's not ones of the potential meanings that I'm able to get from it.
    – nnnnnn
    Oct 23, 2020 at 1:57

No head injury is too trivial to ignore.

The phrase No head injury could potentially mean either of the following:

  • Not a single (type/kind of) head injury (or, in other words, the presence of any head injury)
  • Having no head injury (or, in other words, the absence of a head injury)

These two interpretations are contradictory.

A similar ambiguous construction is, "No news is good news".

  • I would argue that "no head injury..." as a subject is distinctly different than "having no head injury...". One would not reasonably substitute one for the other, so the chance of a misinterpretation seems unlikely.
    – Lynn
    Nov 18, 2012 at 13:49
  • @Lynn I'm suggesting that the misinterpretation is centred around the word no rather than Lymington's enough. A similar ambiguous statement is, "No news is good news". Nov 18, 2012 at 16:00
  • I see. Personally I find that there's no ambiguity in the "No head injury" phrase and that the "No news is good news" idiom is the weirdly confusing one. But I get what you're saying.
    – Lynn
    Nov 19, 2012 at 2:55

The ambiguity is whether "too" modifies "trivial" or "trivial to ignore." The latter is very, very weak, so to illustrate the idea more clearly, consider these examples:

"The diamond is too hard to cut." "The diamond is too hard to see." Now it should be clear that the first one has "too" modifying "hard" but the second has it modifying "hard to see."


The ambiguity seems to be that taking the words "no head injury" , indicating an absence of a head injury, "is too trivial to ignore", which makes no sense, at least to me. If it is that trivial, it seems to me it should be ignored. At first I thought this would require that the answer read "All head injuries ARE serious". However, this statement is not what the original intended and is not even true. As I thought about it further, I realized the statement was not about the severity of injuries, but was actually addressed to the attitude of the person injured or initially consulted about the injury. My suggestion is "All head injuries should be taken seriously.


How about 'no head' injury as in an injury due to which the patient no longer has a head - too trivial to ignore?


One could imagine two meanings by inserting hyphens:

No head-injury is too trivial to ignore.


No-head injury is too trivial to ignore.

I’m having trouble coming up with an example of a No-head injury, though.

  • A broken arm is no head injury. Thus a broken arm is too trivial to ignore. Nov 19, 2012 at 10:48

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