Linguistic Anthropology

The study of language has been part of anthropology since the discipline started in the 1ate 1870s. This site is a place for linguistic anthropologists to post their work and discuss important events and trends in the field.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Follow up: Not to split infinitives

As I promised last week, I have a slightly more elaborate analysis of two functions of negated infinitives. Recall that I experienced a very brief confusion during a speech by former Vice President Dick Cheney. Mr. Cheney said something like the following:
1. Part of our responsibility was not to forget the terrible harm that had been done.
(This is just a portion of Mr. Cheney's sentence, edited to highlight the grammatical element I'm interested in here. Those interested in the content of the speech can see a transcript at the Washington Post's web page.)

I experienced a sort of garden-path phenomenon, in that I expected responsibility was not to introduce some task outside the set of things that are our responsibility - something like 2.
2. Forgetting the harm was not our responsibility.
But of course, as I quickly realized, the sentence actually intended something like 3.
3. Not forgetting the harm was our responsibility.
Call sentence 2 the no responsibility reading; call 3 the responsibility for negative reading.

I suggested last week that these two meanings could be suggested by placing the negative element - the word not - either before or after the infinitive marker to. It was my expectation that placing not before the infinitive marker would tend to suggest no responsibility, while placing not between the infinitive marker and the verb would tend to suggest responsibility for negative. Got that? Maybe I'd better illustrate it.
4. My responsibility is not to foo (but to faa). [no responsibility]

5. My responsibility is to not foo (and you shouldn't, either). [responsibility for negative]
As I hope was clear in the previous posting, these are simply my own intuitions about my own usage, not a theory about negation in English. Today, however, I have a bit more data to add, based on a brief exploration of the Corpus of Contemporary American English.

I searched the corpus for instances of job is not to and job is to not. The former search returned 61 results; the latter only three. (As I suggested last time, the lack of examples in the latter case may be related to the common preference to avoid split infinitives.) Since there were so few instances of job is to not, I searched again for responsibility is to not, but found only a single example. The following is based on comparison of all four job/responsibility is to not tokens, and 59 tokens of job is not to. (Two of the original 61 tokens were found to be repetitions of other tokens from the same media source - possibly from different editions.) The data are summarized in the following table.
 no responsibilityresponsibility for negativeother*
job is not to71.2%
(42 of 59)
(4 of 59)
(13 of 59)
job is to not0.0%
(0 of 4)
(3 of 4)
(1 of 4)
*The category other includes tokens that could not be placed unambiguously into either category.

These numbers largely accord with my intuition. The string job is not to most often precedes a task which is not part of the job (no responsibility); much less frequently, the job is defined as doing the activity named by the negated verb phrase (responsibility for negative). In contrast, the string job (or responsibility) is to not most often indicates a responsibility for negative - but the small number of tokens makes this conclusion weaker.

Appendix - Examples
not to::no responsibility
true. And I think, you know, at this point, Bush's job is not to win back disaffected Democrats, it's to win back people who

a reservist, " you realize that they're cheating you, " that the job is not to defend the country but " to defend settlements. " Even before

he would recommend be changed to improve the racial climate in this country. Our job is not to make a report. Our job is simply to advise this president

not to::responsibility for negative
They look like bushes, " said Redford resident Enrique Madrid. " " Their job is not to be seen. They take pride in that. They brag about

the innocent. That's right. But also, the Attorney General's job is not to get caught up in the hysteria of the moment and the opinion

not to::unclear
off if they had a different ruler, " he said. " But my job is not to pick their rulers for them. I always tell everybody I am

the Persian Gulf before the operation started, and one point I made was your job is not to interrupt an interview. I'm disturbed when I see that.

to not::no responsibility

to not::responsibility for negative
he might vote on it, should it ever come to that. And his job is to not give them any inkling whatsoever. Because in the event that it

see an English-speaking campus some day, largely instigated by the Malaysians themselves. My job is to not get in the way. # By Terry Fredrickson ITM-MUCIA Cooperative Program

time and again, along with all the other jurors, that that was our responsibility is to not make a decision before all of the facts were in and that

to not::other
lyrics. This woman taught me when you're standing up to sing, your job is to not only be vocally correct, but to get it across to the


Blogger Blair said...

This is a good analysis, but a better editorial decision would be to get rid of the negative. "Our responsibility was to remember..." The best solution to the confusing negative is almost always the straightforward positive.

3:47 PM  
Blogger Alice Thomas said...

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12:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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2:06 AM  
Blogger Lawton said...

I was really grateful to read this post, particular your actual breakdown of the statistics of the usage of each.
I was recently involved in a conversation with an non-native English teacher who was discussing split infinitives. She asked me what I thought about split infinitives of purpose with regards to negation. For example, she said that she had always taught her students that the appropriate answer to "Why did you set your alarm?" was "Not to wake up late." I told her that this construction sounded awkward to me, as if the sentence was not finished. In this case, I feel like the sentences should be, "Not to wake up late, but to wake up early." In other words, I feel like the 'not to' response only answers what the reason was not, not what the reason was. I said that, to me, it sounded more natural to respond with "To not wake up late." In other words, the purpose of setting the alarm was to not wake up late. I realize this problem can be completely circumvented by avoiding the negative altogether, but I have been curious as to other people's thoughts on the matter. Your intuition and mine seem to be the same.

8:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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8:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Blair, I wholeheartedly agree with your statement. Sometimes elaborated sentences don't carry the message as clearly as a short statement. I am a non-native English speaker. Maybe because of my upbringing, I also follow the same intuitive approach to split infinitives as the author of this blog. English is quite a remarkable language for a French girl like me.

8:34 PM  
Blogger Jennifer Skelton said...

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4:58 AM  

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