Writing for Business

Nov 8 2012   1:27PM GMT

Overnegation: Double negatives make a positive

Ivy Wigmore Ivy Wigmore Profile: Ivy Wigmore

What does this sentence mean?
It’s unlikely that the software will never be standardized.

a. The software is likely to be standardized.
b. The software is not likely to be standardized.

Answer: a.


Let’s break it down: What is unlikely? That the software will never be standardized. Therefore, the software is likely to be standardized.

Ben Zimmer (@bgzimmer) wrote about overnegation on his Language Log post, Don’t be discouraged from not voting. He provides these examples:

 This particular misnegation crops up here and there online:

This is one way to intimidate and discourage people from not voting. (link)

Perhaps requiring a legitimate ID in order to vote may discourage many from not voting. (link)

so each of these counties, as well as counties in other crucial swing states is to frighten those undecideds with xenophobic, jingoistic race baiting or discourage those undecideds from not voting. (link)

He said such a campaign was intended to create fears and panic among aliens, aimed to discourage people from not voting for the NPP. (link)


This post was inspired by a misinterpretation of a similar sentence, in a post about software defined networking (SDN). From the Nerd Twilight blog:

Recently, Greg Ferro, of EtherealMind renown, provided an instructive overview on SDN APIs, opining that it is “unlikely that Northbound APIs will never standardise but I’m not aware of any initiatives in this area.”

I don’t know whether northbound APIs, as Greg suggests, will never standardize, but I do know that most knowledgeable observers (including the aforementioned parties) believe that there should no headlong rush toward standardization.

The writer missed the double negation and took the meaning of “unlikely never to standardize” to mean “unlikely to standardize.” Ferro’s intended meaning was likely that he thinks it likely that northbound APIs will eventually standardize, although he doesn’t know of any current efforts toward that standardization.


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2  Comments on this Post

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  • Greg Ferro
    Yeah,  "unlikely to never standardise" is just me being a smartass and fooling with the English language. I also like to use arcane and obscure words where ever I can. This proves that I am a smartass. 
    35 pointsBadges:
  • Ivy Wigmore
    "Unlikely never to standardise" completely fooled the guy who quoted it in the article. He thought it meant that the writer thought standardization wouldn't likely ever happen. The perils of being a smartass -- have fallen prey to same myself.
    735 pointsBadges:

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