LINGUIST List 4.950

Fri 12 Nov 1993

Disc: Negation

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. , Irony...not

Message 1: Irony...not

Date: Tue, 9 Nov 93 18:41:16 ESTIrony...not
From: <>
Subject: Irony...not

 While we're on the subjects of conventionalized irony and spurious
 negation, here's a mystery to chew on. One day on the freeway, while
 swerving to avoid an unexpected lane entrant, I found myself muttering:

 (1) I love people who signal.

 (1) was clearly intended as ironic, but I noticed that it was also true
 (given, perhaps, a certain hyperbolic sense of 'love'), which is not a
 normal characteristic of ironic utterances. It occurred to me that
 this odd dual status seemed to have come about because both verbs in
 the sentence were being negated as a form of conventional irony.

 Running through the obvious alternatives, I produced:

 (2) I love people who don't signal. [false & ironic]
 (3) I hate people who don't signal. [true & literal]
 (4) #I hate people who signal. [not ironic]

 Of these, (2) is a more common ironic form, identical to (1) in
 intended sense (though logically different, and false), (3) is a
 literally true statement which is not ironic, and (4) is rather odd
 in this context; the most I can say about it is that it's not ironic,
 or at least not conventionally so.

 What seems to be happening is that in this sentence, for whatever
 reason, one can express irony in two ways;

 (a) by conventionally negating the main predicate (i.e,
 substituting 'love' for 'hate'), thus misdescribing
 the subject's feelings ironically; and

 (b) by conventionally negating the relative clause that
 characterizes the object [people who (don't) signal],
 thus misdescribing the object ironically.

 What's interesting is that this seems to have to be a top-down affair.
 If you do (a) upstairs, you can optionally do (b) downstairs as well,
 possibly for further ironic effect (though my ironimeter isn't
 calibrated for comparisions this fine), and incidentally producing a
 literally true sentence, since the double negations cancel out in this
 construction. But if you do don't do (a) upstairs, you can't do (b)
 downstairs; attempting this produces (4), which is odd.

 This seems similar (though I would hesitate to claim identical) to the
 phenomenon of "secondary triggering" of NPI's, (i.e,

 A weak negative trigger like 'surprised' can trigger an NPI like 'any',
 but not (to use Ross's term) a "neg-needy" one like 'in weeks':

 (5)a I don't think anybody's been here.
 b I'm surprised anybody's been here.
 (6)a I don't think he's been here in weeks.
 b *I'm surprised he's been here in weeks.

 However, triggering 'any' downstairs in (6)a licenses "secondary
 triggering" of 'in weeks' there as well:

 (6)c I'm surprised anybody's been here in weeks.

 ...all of which no doubt goes to show that this is a more complex
 situation than a metaphor like "triggering" can really deal with.)

 Does anybody's theory of either negation or irony predict any of this?

-John Lawler <>
 Program in Linguistics University of Michigan
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