CNN: Not Anybody Who Doesn't Think It Won't. Huh?

A Blog About Language
Sept. 29 2013 4:05 PM

CNN: Not Anybody Who Doesn't Think It Won't. Huh?

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Dana Bash of CNN

Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for People

Is Dana Bash, CNN's chief congressional correspondent, saying the government will shut down or not? Here is a direct quotation from Bash on the website of Fox6Now.com in Milwaukee:

I've not talked to anybody here who doesn't think it's a very, very big possibility, even Republicans, that the government won't shut down—even for a short time.

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OK, let's take this real slow. If she has not talked to anybody who doesn't think that P, that implies everyone does think that P; it leans toward the view that P is (probably) true. Now for the P. If it's a "big possibility" (even for Republicans) that the government won't shut down, that leans toward it not shutting down.

Putting it all together, it looks like everyone thinks it probably won't shut down. Not even for a short time.

Yet the whole article is about "a move that makes a government shutdown very likely." And the paragraph just before the quotation above says "Congress could avert a shutdown by passing a temporary spending measure while the two chambers work out their differences. But neither side is talking about that now." Fox thinks it is now very likely that the government will shut down, and is citing Bash in support of its view.

So to sum up, Bash appears to have said the exact opposite of what she meant. Taking a flying guess at what she intended to say, I think it was probably something like this: "Everyone I've talked to here, even Republicans, thinks it's a very, very big possibility that the government will shut down, even though it may be only for a short time."

However, reading a triple negation that should have been either a double negation or a quadruple negation, and which had several phrases clearly in places where they did not make sense, has made my head feel slightly woozy, and I'm now going to go to a quiet place and lie down with a damp cloth over my eyes.

A version of this post originally appeared on Language Log.

Geoff Pullum is professor of general linguistics in the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences at the University of Edinburgh. He is co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.