Monday, August 3, 2009

Intensifiers, or It's a reasonable language

I get frustrated with editors who insist that our language is logical. It's not. At best, it's reasonable.

For instance, I still run into editors who forbid the double negative (which is fine with me as a style guide issue) because "two negatives make a positive." Apparently, when someone says "I ain't got no money" these editors completely misunderstand the speaker even though every one else standing around knows exactly what the speaker means: he's broke. These editors don't seem to realize that negatives are, like "very" or "really, really", intensifiers. These people would also argue with Thomas Jefferson in forming a "more perfect union" because, after all, once you're perfect you have to stop--you can't go beyond perfect. Yet every reader knows what he means.

Statements like "ain't got no", "more perfect", "a little bit pregnant" all convey meaning and are prefectly reasonable things to say, however much they violate the rules of logic. Based on our purpose with the audience we may choose to avoid them but we can't claim they're wrong.

Someone said that in English a single negative is a negative ("I've got no money"), and two negatives is very negative ("I ain't got no..."), and two negatives can even be a positive ("What he hasn't got is no money"), but two positives can never be a negative. To which someone in the audience responded sarcastically "Yeah, right."

Reading or read

No comments: