Mark Liberman at Language Log has a post about an interesting problem of interpretation. He quotes Bill Clement on the cancellation of the NHL season: “It is such a day of squander and a day of waste that anybody involved in both sides should be ashamed of who they are right now.” After establishing that squander is a valid, if infrequent, noun, he points out the strange (to him and to me, anyway) use of “anybody involved in both sides”:

When he says “anybody involved in both sides”, Clement clearly means that all the participants, regardless of which side they’re on, should be ashamed of their fatal unwillingness to compromise. He’s not slamming fence-sitters or double agents — he’s not even suggesting that any members of these categories exist. The negotiation between the NHL owners and the players’ union has been a polarizing dispute, and if there is any individual who’s consequentially involved with both sides at once, he’s keeping a low profile.
However, when I read this, I first interpreted “anybody involved on [sic; Clement said "in"] both sides” as referring to people with split allegiance.
So the question is, did Clement make a mistake in saying this? Or did I make a mistake in understanding it? Or do we speak slightly different dialects of English?

I have the same reaction as Mark, but clearly some people use the construction unselfconsciously—see his post for examples found by googling. So, how do you all feel about this? Does the quoted usage seem wrong, borderline, or perfectly OK?


  1. It works for me if there’s a comma separation: “anybody involved, in both sides…” Otherwise, I get the same interpretation you do.

  2. But is that a plausible reading? If you separate “involved,” don’t you have to say “on both sides”? “In” is only there because it’s part of “involved in.”

  3. Hmm, now I see that Mark misquoted the sentence in the second paragraph in the blockquote above. And I used the “on” from his misquote in my title. Which is all very confusing. Tsk.

  4. I’m disqualified from making acceptability judgements, but wouldn’t “on both sides” be more idiomatic in any case?
    On reading Mark’s post, it occurred to me that this is partly a problem on what adverbial/quantifier gets attached first. For example: “On/in both sides, anybody involved should be ashamed …” sounds to me much less misleading/ambiguous. So if first both sides of this dispute are selected, then (all) people in this first selection, and in a third step anybody (and arbitrary member) among them, everything is clear. The reverse is not true, in the dialect of standard English (hum) that I am used to.

  5. It sounds to me like there was a clash of particles where two set phrases came together “involved in” and “on both sides”. Between “in” and “on”, only one survived.

  6. I can get only the narrow-scope ‘both’ reading, i.e., in which there exists at least one X such that X is on both sides. To get the intended reading, I’d have to replace ‘both sides’ with ‘either side’.

  7. I’m probably in the minority again, but I see the narrow-scope meaning as more of a stretch than the intended one (Neal’s terms), but maybe as an EFL teacher, I’m used to turning sentences inside out until they make sense one way or another. I agree that “on ‘either’ side” would clear things up a bit, but in that case, it could seem that he was casting blame only on one side. Here, I think he really wants his emphasis on “both.” Perhaps ML’s anybody/everybody chart reveals best what’s happening: in most dialects, “anybody” and “either” form an acceptable negative collocation (implicitly excluding one side from the other), whereas “everybody” and “both” form a positive (inclusive) one.

  8. The whole thing is mighty aberrant (and that’s /ab-ERR-ant/, thank you). I agree with Neal that “either side” is probably the most needed fix (probably with “on” for “in”, too); I agree with Chris that the order in which the elements are presented makes an important difference; and I’m not sure about some of Sissoula’s observations.
    On the subject of “anybody”, here’s an interesting one:
    You come into a room full of people and find a last remaining Danish* on a plate, waiting invitingly to be claimed and eaten. “Is this anybody’s?” you eagerly enquire. Someone answers “Yes!” Do you take the cake, or leave it? (Show all working.)
    *The pastry, not the Scandinavian. It isn’t THAT kind of party.

  9. Huh. My first reaction was that “yes” had to mean “yes, it’s taken,” but then I realized “anybody’s” could mean “fair game for anybody.” I guess it would depend on intonation: “Is THIS anybody’s?” would imply “is it taken?” whereas “Is this ANYBODY’S?” would imply “is it up for grabs?”
    Incidentally, your /ab-ERR-ant/ is as ambiguous as your “anybody’s” question. If you mean the stress is on the second syllable, I agree with you, but if you mean the second syllable is pronounced like the word “err,” I must dissent.

  10. Hat: is that your sly way of saying you’re divine?
    Noetica: such wickedness; wonderful.

  11. Hat: is that your sly way of saying you’re divine?
    I didn’t say anything about forgiving, did I? To err is human, to dissent is cranky.

  12. Comrade!

  13. LH, I agree about “aberrant”. We have such trouble specifying pronunciations lucidly, don’t we? I was afraid I wouldn’t get away with the ambiguity in this one.
    For the record, I meant simply that I wanted the stress on the second syllable, though in Oz one normally hears it on the first. (And in the US?) I note a strong US tendency for words like “occurrence”, and even “forest”, to be pronounced with vowels modified by the “r” (like the second vowel in “occur”, and the vowel in “for”). In Oz only the younger television addicts have that tendency. But no, I was not making any point about that with “aberrant”.

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