The folks over at Language Log have had a number of posts about the difficulty of fitting negations into sentences so that they make sense (see Why are negations so easy to fail to miss? and the list at the bottom of this post), and I’ve just run across a splendid specimen. In today’s Berkshire Eagle, there’s a column by Leonard Quart called “Brooklyn Changing” that compares today’s Brooklyn to the sedater borough described lovingly by James Agee in a 1939 essay; about two thirds of the way through, a section on the neighborhood known as Dumbo (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) concludes:

But the painter who said to me that he liked the fact that Dumbo is relatively undeveloped also knows that it will soon go the way of SoHo.
Dumbo will ultimately become so dominated by boutiques and condos that young painters like himself will no longer be unable to afford to live there.

The italics are in the original, giving a nice highlight to the negation that breaks the sentence’s back. (It’s possible, of course, that Quant is deliberately playing with the cliche and intended the sentence to read as it does, but in that case I have no idea what he’s trying to say.)
As lagniappe, here‘s a most enjoyable poem by Gerard Nolst Trenité foregrounding the absurdities of English orthography (sent me by John Emerson of Idiocentrism):

Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.
I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
Tear in eye, your dress you’ll tear

There’s another, more attractively laid out, version of the poem here, along with an introduction giving the history of the poem and its Dutch author, who wrote it as an appendix to a 1920 book on learning to pronunce English correctly and kept adding to it over the years. I strongly disagree, however, with the footnote insisting that the word does in line 193 (“Shoes, goes, does. Now first say: finger“) is the plural of doe; if that were the case, it would duplicate the vowel sound of the preceding word goes and add nothing to the line. It has to be the third singular present of the verb do, providing yet another variant (the central vowel ʌ).


  1. It’s possible, of course, that Quant is deliberately playing with the cliche and intended the sentence to read as it does, but in that case I have no idea what he’s trying to isay.

    I took it that he was making a little joke about painters: Artists are notoriously unable to afford a place to live. Right now, Dumbo is one such place. In the future it wll become so expensive that artists will no longer be unable to afford to live there, and they will have to move someplace else where they will be unable to afford to live.

  2. I don’t think it’s a joke, since this seems like a pretty common case of overnegation. Some other examples via Google:
    If a spring is exposed to that frequency as the motors rpm’s increase, the vibration will rapidly build up to such an extent that the spring will no longer be unable to control its own motion.
    As the population ages, many amongst us will find that eyesight deteriorating and we will no longer be unable to drive as safely.
    If you earn 1 negative feedback your account may be suspended depending on the circumstances, and you will no longer be unable to list or bid.
    You will no longer be unable to add items to your Store unless you delete existing items or upgrade your account to a larger item limit.
    Most of my work is using these images and lyrics, so I regret that I will no longer be unable to post things here.

  3. Yes. Given the weight of those examples, I guess I’m no longer unable to agree with you.

  4. That’s the first time I’ve seen that pronunciation poem attributed to an author! Thank goodness for that.

  5. If it weren’t for the emphasis I’d agree with Ben. (Although in any case I might want to point out that it doesn’t matter how many examples of mistaken usage you find, it’s still possible to have a different, correct usage. Cf: “Avid fiction readers will no longer be unable to read the book titles due to dim or non-existent light in the fiction stacks.”) Given the emphasis, I’m reading it as another joke: when all the boutiques and condos come, bringing all the Beautiful People with money to spend on art, the artists will *have* to live there in order to be ‘in’. They might not be able to afford it (financially) but they can’t afford to be anywhere else either because no one will take any notice of them.

  6. Disclaimer: I found the poem at Desbladet’s.

  7. aldiboronti says:

    Does anybody know if English really does have more anomalous pronunciations than other languages? Or do ours just get more attention?

  8. David Lyle says:

    Sorry that this is somewhat off-topic, but could someone tell me what font(s) (or what settings) I need to read the central vowel at the end of the post (and many symbols in other posts)? I’ve already downloaded numerous fonts enabling me to read all sorts of alphabets including the IPA (at least in some versions). Any ideas?
    And yes, I know that Firefox is better for this sort of thing, but it doesn’t seem to work as smoothly on my computer and OS.

  9. The Poem has a number of Britishisms that sound wrong to me, and words not in common American English usage now. Still, it was great fun to read out loud. Thanks.

  10. >Does anybody know if English really does have >more anomalous pronunciations than other >languages? Or do ours just get more attention?
    English is one of, if not the most unsystematic language when it comes to spelling. Every language I’ve studied that has an alphabet has more systematic spelling. I can read Italian, French, Turkish and German so that a fluent speaker can at least understand me whether I know what I’m reading or not. These languages have all had fairly recent (last couple of centuries, even more recently with Turkish) efforts to systematize the spelling.
    Personally, I like this about English. It allows for the written language to be both alphabetic and iconic. The first gives poetry, writing that one must sound out to get the full experience of tone and rhythm. The second gives a kind of reading experience usually looked down upon by the more academic type. The experience is that the reader loses conscious sight of the page and internalizes the imagic meaning instantaneously. This is usually found in genre fiction and is connected to the fact that English encourages people to recognize whole words in context over a linear decoding of a phonetic string. Since I love have both types of reading experiences, I like knwoing a language that encourages both.

  11. Mongol was first written down around 1200 AD, and when traditional script is used the old spellings survive, and there are a lot of silent letters. I wish I knew Mongol better, I’m at a very introductory level.

  12. Re: “Does anybody know if English really does have more anomalous pronunciations than other languages? Or do ours just get more attention?”
    I think it’s both. In my (admittedly limited) experience, other alphabetic/syllabaric languages don’t seem to have too many *anomalous* pronunciations – as in, pronunciations that are completely random-seeming with respect to everything else in the language – but that doesn’t mean their writing systems are all straightforward. Firstly, the pronunciation rules, even if they have few exceptions, are nonetheless often quite complex. Secondly, it seems to me that almost all languages have ambiguous mappings from pronunciation to spelling (e.g., there exist homophonic strings of letters in not-quite-complementary distribution; French is off the charts in this regard, with at least nine distinct spellings for words pronounced /o/, but some languages even do this intentionally, such as by using a non-pronunciation-affecting diacritic to distinguish two common homophones). Thirdly, not all languages bother to transcribe all pronunciation information; many don’t transcribe stress/accent, and Hebrew and Arabic don’t generally transcribe vowels and certain consonant distinctions. Fourthly, languages that use the Latin alphabet often have English loanwords in which they’ve retained much of the spelling and much of the pronunciation, even if those are at odds. (I’m sorry, but “jeep” as /dʒip/ is an anomalous pronunciation in Spanish, even if you’d like to blame English for it.)

  13. How duz one say rarebits or dears be a does?

  14. On the Dumbo quote — and yes, I work for that newspaper company — it seems to me this and the rest of the Google citations for “not … unable” are typos rather than new usage memes. In other words, it’s an artifact of the word-processor: Quart starts to write that young artists “will no longer be able to afford to live there,” changes his mind to say, “will be unable to afford to live there,” which sounds better, and then forgets to delete “no longer”. Hand-writing, or even typing on a typewriter, you’d be more likely to remember the deletion. I see this kind of thing in news copy all the time. The languagelog example like “don’t fail to miss it” are a different thing.

  15. Excellent point!

  16. I’ve written more about this here. Comments welcome.

  17. I understand (and have witnessed) artifacts that arise from computer-based editing, and I have created my fair share of them. I’m skeptical, though, that this is the case.
    If the author actually meant to say, “…will be unable to afford to live there” with “unable” italicized, it would only make sense to me if the previous paragraph or two were stressing a current “ability”–the italics, then, would emphasize and contrast the change.
    I’m inclined to agree with an earlier view, looking at these two sentences in a crucible, that the italics point out the irony that the influx of opportunity (prosperity) will overcome the inflated local economy, thus the painter will no longer be unable to live there. (i.e., he will be able to live there.)
    A greater context to work within might provide a different perspective.

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