Saturday, May 05, 2007

No more not on negative concord

An earlier post made reference to the following lines spoken by Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice:

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov'd with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;

Note the negative concord. To rewrite it as Ms B my junior high grammar teacher would suggest we then have to choose which negative to change. Which is better?

The man that hath no music in himself, nor is movd...
The man that hath no music in himself and is not mov'd...?

Of course the rhythm requirements would only allow the second version -- which still isn't as good as Shakespeare's.

The use of nor to as a negative on the verb phrase is a stretch of the common rule for a coordinated negative that does not change (ie reverse) the semantics of a previous negative. Think of the neither...nor rule. As that rule is usually applied the two negated words/phrases function as the same part of speech.

Neither borrower nor lender be.
Neither snow nor rain nor heat...

I can neither read nor write.
I neither agree nor disagree.
We will neither retreat nor surrender.

He is neither kind nor honest.
That's neither here nor there.

I work neither for them nor with them.


Occasionally this coordination jumps categories. Sometimes it's a very awkward union as in I have neither friends nor have enemies. That sentence sounds weird partly because the first "neither" negates the noun "friends" and the corresponding "nor" applies to the verb "have". But it's probably mostly because the second "have" sounds repetitive. Consider the following that has a similar non-parallel structure but avoids the repetition: I have neither friends nor do I want any. Not a great sentence but it's okay.

Correlating an adjective with a verb sounds fine too: She was neither present nor did we expect her.

And without the "neither" (which does have the power of suggesting a parallel structure) A sentence like No one called nor did they write is barely noticeable in its non-parallel form. The "nor" coordinates a negated verb with a negative quantifier, not with another verb. But it sounds fine to me.

As we pick up this argument that negative concord has not lost its place in the underlying form of English, support comes from some situations in which two negatives are not proscribed by even the most staunch advocate of mathematical logic. Consider the following exchanges.

Speaker A: You don't think Carrot Top is funny?!
Speaker 2: No.

Speaker 3: Are you going to the game?
Speaker D: No, I don't think I'll make it.

Let's play with the second example.

Speaker 3: Are you going to the game?
Speaker D: Yes, I don't think I'll make it.

Here we see that the opening is probably a single word response to the question. And to the question "are you going" (derived from the statement you are going) the proper response in this case is a simple "No." We could even argue that what follows is a separate sentence not commanded by the single word response. Maybe.

In the first exchange the speaker wants to affirm the statement that she doesn't like the prop-comic. Consider how this would sound:

Speaker A: You don't think Carrot Top is funny?!
Speaker 2: Yes.

The intention of the yes/no response is to paraphrase one of two answers. Either "Your statement is true" or "your statement is false." Although the response is to an interrogative, not a declarative, so it gets muddy. But whether the question is a surprised "You think he's funny" or "You don't think he's funny" the answer is the same: "No" (for anyone with integrity).

Finally let's turn to an example from a horrible show that was not put down soon enough. Heard on The Class during the obligatory hook-up scene between two main characters:

He: "This means nothing."

She: "It better not!"

I will rest on this simple claim. The intention of the second speaker is ambiguous. In Standard English she could be hoping that it means either 'something' or 'nothing.' Agreeing with him or correcting him. For this ambiguity to exist there must be an underlying form that is sometimes realized in the phonetic form and sometimes is not.

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