Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A strange example of negative inversion

I've just spotted a rather strange example of negative inversion in today's Guardian. Commenting on the fact that Google Maps Russia now shows Crimea as part of Russia, the writer says:
The bit we're interested in is this:
  • In no uncertain terms is the area marked as a separate country from wider Ukraine.

Negative inversion

This is an example of negative inversion. We sometimes use inversion with negative or limiting adverbs to shift the emphasis onto the negative adverb or for dramatic effect.
Negative inversion involves putting the adverb or adverbial phrase to the beginning of the sentence and swapping the positions of the subject and the auxiliary verb. Here are some examples of standard sentences with their negative adverb (or negative expression) underlined, followed by their inverted versions:
  • I have never heard such nonsense in all my life.
    Never in all my life have I heard such nonsense.
  • We had hardly entered the room, when the lights went out.
    Hardly had we entered the room when the lights went out
  • He little realised the danger that he faced.
    Little did he realise the danger that he faced.
  • I found out only then that that she was cheating me.
    Only then did I found out that she was cheating on me.
  • There is no way I'm going to aplogise to him.
    No way am I going to apologise to him.

So what's my problem with the Guardian example?

Part 1 - In no uncertain terms

The expression in no uncertain terms is one of the few occasions when we can use a double negative in Standard English - and we do it to emphasise a positive, as in:
  • She told him what she thought of him, in no uncertain terms.
In other words, she told him exactly what she thought of him, directly and without mincing her words. We could also put the adverbial to the front, without inversion.
  • In no uncertain terms, she told him what she thought of him.

Part 2 - Confounding expectations

But it would be very odd (if not downright senseless) to invert it:
  • In no uncertain terms did she tell him what she thought of him.
Why? Because as soon as we see a negative adverb or adverbial at the beginning of a sentence followed by an inversion, this sets us up to expect a very strong negative; that's the whole point of negative inversion. So when it turns out to be positive, we are left somewhat confused, as I was with the Guardian example.


The linguistics blog Language Log has published a series of posts investigating cases where people get confused when using negatives with expressions such as underestimate. An example might go like this:
  • The amount of damage caused by the tsunami cannot be underestimated.
What the speaker really means is that it is impossible to overestimate the amount of damage, not underestimate it. In other words, the amount of damage is so high, that no figure you come up with is likely to be higher than the the actual one.
One of the regulars at Language Log, Linguistics professor Mark Liberman, calls this'the miracle of misnegation'.
He reckons that something similar is happening with in no uncertain, and that when no uncertain is used in negative inversion structures, it's often intended to have a negative meaning, and he quotes a woman as saying:
  • I am 25 wks pregnant now and I have told my partner in no uncertain terms do I want another one that close!!
To put it another way, what she really meant was:
  • I am 25 wks pregnant now and I have told my partner that no way do I want another one that close!!
Ngram comes up with no hits for in no uncertain terms did, but looking in Google Books I found this, which, in line with what Mark Liberman was saying, seems to have a negative rather than a double positive meaning - he didn't care:
a hungry kiss that told her in no uncertain terms did he care that she was his boss

Mail Order Cowboy - Pamela Bauer

Back to that map

But that's certainly not what's happening in the Guardian example: there's nothing negative about it. Which is why it seems odd to me in a negative inversion structure. Better would have simply been:
  • The area is marked as a separate country from wider Ukraine in no uncertain terms.
  • or starting with the negative adverbial, but without inversion:
  • In no uncertain terms, the area is marked as a separate country from wider Ukraine

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vp said...

It's probably the result of an editing error, or a bad cut-and-paste.

Almost every item in the Guardian has such errors these days.

Anonymous said...

Well spotted, Will.

Warsaw Will said...

@Caxton - it sort of jumped out at me.

@vp - I think it would be very difficult to form an inversion like this by accident. If you think the Guardian makes lots of mistakes now, you're probably too young to remember when it really earned its epithet of the Grauniad, in the bad old days before direct entry, when numbers and even fractions were just as likely to turn up in a word as letters.

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