New day, new linguistic fodder to chew on, and another quick note!

From an article in today’s HT:

“The SC had said that if there is no reason to disbelieve that the accused cannot be reformed or rehabilitated, a sentence of death would be erroneous.”

The moment I read ‘no reason to disbelieve’, I knew there was a disaster waiting to happen, and I wasn’t disappointed. There are a total of 4 negating elements in this text (no reason, disbelieve, cannot be, erroneous) and you will see that the meaning is virtually impossible to compute naturally. That is, when you read it without consciously trying to understand it, your brain is likely to not compute any definite meaning. You can of course sit over coffee and compute it element by element. I did that while walking from H3 to the Mech Department, and this is the conclusion (it is paraphrased, so it won’t exactly match the statement)—”If the accused can be reformed or rehabilitated, a death sentence should be given,” which is of course not what the Supreme Court wanted to say.

Why does this happen? As has often been commented upon on LanguageLog, our little monkey brains find it rather difficult to handle more than 3 or 4 levels of negation, and they just start to shake and sputter and overheat before completely giving up. We then use our intuition to compute the meaning. In the above sentence, almost all readers would assume the sensible conclusion—”If there is any possibility of reform, one should not give the death sentence”, which is exactly opposite to what ends up being computed.

Note that this is different from sentences like “I don’t know nothing” or “We don’t need no education”. In Standard English, their truth values would be opposite of the intended ones, but in many dialects of English, including African American Vernacular English (AAVE), they are perfectly grammatical and intentional. And such constructions are also sometimes used intentionally by speakers of Standard English. Misnegation, on the other hand, is when the author intended to convey the opposite meaning, but ended up getting entangled in a lump of negative particles and scalar predicates and produced semantic garble.

Misnegation is interesting since it helps us study the theoretical and practical limitations of the human brain in understanding language constructions. It is also very important for lawyers and lawmakers and law-interpreters, who will often find themselves in a fix—do you take the text at face value and derive an obviously wrong interpretation, or do you assume that the law-writer made a mistake and take the meaning that is more sensible? Often, the issue is not so cut-and-dried or obvious as the death sentence one. Look around yourself, and you will find several examples of misnegation in everyday life!