Saturday, July 01, 2006

Too much negation to fail to confuse

Here's a cartoon that made my head hurt this morning:

So, the third panel is very parseable. There is no degree of badness such that it would prevent someone from coming into church. But the fourth panel, with a completely parallel structure, boggled me.

Presumably, it conveys a meaning expressible with the same kind of paraphrase: There is no degree of goodness such that it would prevent someone from staying out of church.

Ouch! Even the paraphrase hurts!

I felt like I had the right parse there for a minute -- surely the intent of the comic is to say, no one is excluded from belonging to the church, i.e. everyone can come in. The intent, then, is to say that bad people, no matter how bad, can come in, and good people, no matter how good, can't stay out. But I don't think it says this. I think it says that good people, no matter how good, CAN stay out.

That is, the reverend seems to be saying that good people don't need to come to church.

Is that right? Do you extract the same message? Is that supposed to be part of the joke? ('Herb and Jamaal' is not usually that devious, seems to me, not that I've read it a lot.)

The problem is the cartoonist is mixing all the degree semantics (what *do* you call those 'too X to Y' constructions? They're not comparatives -- what's the word?) and opposites (good vs. bad, come in vs. send out), and negatives (never). He's thrown in two opposites when it should have just been one ('too good to come in' vs. 'too bad to come in'). Maybe it is supposed to be part of the joke.

Anyway, more evidence of the confusability of negatives. (...less evidence of the comprehensibility of positives?)

Update: Check out the comments for more attempts at interpretation! also this post from Micheal Kaplan...seems like there's a substantial number of people out there who can get the intended reading out of this structure! I'm still buffaloed, though. Could this be a semantic microparameter? Or just a failure of imagination?

Update Update: I'm inclined to agree with Neal and Lance (see the comments). That is, I do understand the 'so X you don't need to Y' interpretation of the 'too X to Y' construction (what is it called??) — but I don't think it helps the cartoon at all. Take an exchange like the following:

Teacher: Did you practice this week?

Student: I don't need to do that any more! I'm too good to practice.
( = '[so good that I don't need to practice]') Student is saying he won't practice anymore, right?

Teacher: You're never too good to practice!
( = 'you're never [so good that you don't need to practice]') Teacher is saying student does need to practice, right? Indeed, Teacher is saying that Student will always need to practice.

By the same token, our religious leader above is literally saying, 'you're never [so good that you don't need to stay out of church].' That is, you will always need to stay out of church.

Not the intended message, I think, no?

I haven't done anything tricky in the above, just substituted the predicate 'stay out of church' for the predicate 'practice'. The entailments of the construction should remain constant modulo that change. So if the student/teacher exchange above makes sense to you (modelled on the 'swimming' scenario suggested by the riger in the comments section), then I think you ought to find that the cartoon doesn't say what it thinks it's saying.

On the other hand, if the teacher/student exchange says something else to you, or is just infelicitous, then maybe there's something else going on! :)


Blogger Bridget said...

Wow, that is a doozy! At first I thought he meant you're never so good that you can avoid coming to church, but there was no way he could convey that message without ruining the parallelism of "too X" or ruining the contrast of "come in / stay out." Now that I look at it for the 10th time, I think he was trying to convey something a bit different: you will never achieve a state of extreme goodness if you stay out.

11:02 AM  
Blogger Shreyas said...

I think he's using the idiomatic "too good to X" that means "snobbishly avoids X".

2:21 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

I had NOOOOO problem parsing this. None at all. You guys are weird.

3:23 PM  
Blogger hh said...

And, that's an interesting thought, Shreyas! but I still end up confused -- why would the reverend say 'you're never too snobbish to stay out (or, 'so snobbish that you stay out')'? I still can't get it. Yet something sensible seems to be floating on the edge of my semantic perception, like an optical illusion.
It's like a sore tooth -- I just can't leave it alone! help! Someone tell me what it means! Andrew, you seem to understand it -- what's he saying? Is he saying what I think he's saying? Or what I think he intends to say, but can't pull out of his syntax? Or Bridget, how do you get the parse where goodness is a goal to achieve out of that?
I'm almost convinced there's something obvious that I'm missing, that I've misparsed myself into the wrong reading so many times now I can't recover, doomed to wander the maze of this perceived illogic forever. As long as there's no minotaur in the middle.

4:09 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

It means, there is never a time that you are sufficiently good that you can avoid church.

7:00 PM  
Blogger Lance said...

The problem here is actually the modal. "too X to Y" means, roughly, "I cannot Y (though I want to), because I am X (to some large degree d)".

So a sinner might say, "I'm too bad to come in"--that is, "I can't come into your church, though I might want to, because I'm too bad"; to which the reverend says, "You're never too bad to come in!"

But a saint would never say, "I can't stay out of your church, though I want to, because I'm too good", because a saint wouldn't want to stay out. So someone exceedingly good can't really say, "I'm too good to stay out", and that's what the reverend is negating. The modal he wants to be negating is not "cannot, though I want to" but "need not".

7:44 PM  
Blogger IDisposable said...

I parse the last panel as "nobody is good enough that they don't need to come to church. The relevent bible quote would be "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, that none should boast"

9:23 PM  
Blogger hh said...

Thanks for all your suggestions, guys! sadly, I'm still flummoxed, so i guess I'll just have to give up on it.
Lance, I get you paraphrase of the too X to Y construction just fine; that a good approximation of what I think it means, too. If I then import 'never too good to stay out' into it, I get this:

I cannot stay out (though I want to) because I am too good.

Then if I put 'never' in front of that, I get 'It's never the case that you cannot stay out (though you want to) because you're too good.' I.e., you can always stay out.

Is that what you mean to say with 'the modal he wants to be negating is need not' -- i.e. do you think he wants to be negating it but isn't, because the structure doesn't allow that interpretation? Or that the structure does allow that interpretation, and the reverend is in fact negating the interpretation that he wants to negate?

Can the 'too X to Y' construction be interpreted as containing a 'need'-like modal in some other context? Maybe I just need a parallel structure to prime me on the right attitude.

1:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read it paraphrased as follows:

You are not such a bad person that we won't allow you in, and you are not such a good person that you will remain out.

That is, people will tend to go to church because they feel bad about doing things, if not just feel bad about not going in the first place.

I think the confusion of interpretation hinges on "stay". I read it as "remain", as opposed to parsing it into the idiom "stay out".

7:47 AM  
Blogger Lance said...

Is that what you mean to say with 'the modal he wants to be negating is need not' -- i.e. do you think he wants to be negating it but isn't, because the structure doesn't allow that interpretation?

That's what I mean, yeah. I don't think the "too X to Y" can have the meaning "need not Y", only "cannot Y". So the meaning the cartoonist intends is...

Wait, I've gotten confused again. Let me spend a quality few hours with a whiteboard and get back to you.

10:09 AM  
Anonymous russell said...

I absolutely was able to get the same reading as Andrew on the first time, though on reflection it is a bit of a mystery why that reading is available, and I tried constructing many parallel sentences but they all came out the other way ("a moral person is never too desperate to rob a bank" is a great motto for bank robbers).

Maybe something like "...never too good to be able to stay out" sounds better. It has the same meaning (to me) as the original, with the same mysterious pseudo-overnegation.

A close paraphrase with last panel that I don't think has the strange negation properties might be "never so good so as to stay out", except with "too" instead of "so". It sort of breaks the selectional properties of "too".

Other paraphrases could include a modal like "never so good as to be able to stay out."

11:53 PM  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

"You're never too good to stay out" means "you're never so good that you don't need to come in" as Andrew said. Think of it as similar to a swimming teacher describing a set of potential students: You're never too bad (a swimmer) to come in, but you can be too good.

In other words, no matter how bad you are, you're welcome in church, and no matter how good you are, you still need to come.

6:42 AM  
Blogger Lance said...

Think of it as similar to a swimming teacher describing a set of potential students: You're never too bad (a swimmer) to come in, but you can be too good.

Right: you can be too good to come in. But that teacher wouldn't say that you can be too good to stay out.

9:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Neal says:
I think those who wrote in and said they got the intended reading with no problem just coasted along and let the context do it. It's only those of us (including me and evidently hh) who cling bulldoggishly to the syntax as written and try to assemble a meaning from it who have a problem. My reaction here was the same as it was for the first overnegation I encountered: miss not seeing her. After I'd laboriously figured out what my wife must have meant, only to find out she meant just the opposite--i.e. the sensible meaning I could have gotten by not listening too closely to what she said and only paying attention to the context--I felt slightly cheated.

7:09 PM  
Anonymous Keenan said...

Here's what the comic's author indended to say, and what most people interpret it as saying: You're never too bad to come in, and you're never good enough to stay out.

11:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In previewing my own post here, it suddenly became apparent and obvious to me.. "too good to stay out"... meaning that you can stay away until you reach a level of goodness. And, the addition of the "never" means you'll never REACH that level.

I must admit though, in the context of the statement it made perfect sense to me, and it took an awful lot of half-epiphanies and almost-getting-it to figure out what exactly your argument was.

for the record, here's what i was going to say but didn't:

I can't entirely understand what the "problem" here is. It seems completely obvious to me, without having to resort to any paraphrasing.

The "never too bad to come in" part is obvious and no one seems to have an issue with that.

but then "you're never too good to stay out", seems straightforward to me. You are never "Too good to stay out". You don't have to change anything to "needs" or "remains" or "wants to".

"Too good to stay out" would mean that someone is simply so perfect that there is no reason for them to go to the church. And, because that's obviously not true to anyone who reads the bible, then you just add the "never" to say that you're, well, never that!

The only part of this post that I find confusing is when you're talking about the student/practice example, you converted "too good to stay out" into "so good that you don't need to stay out of church". Where'd that extra "don't" come from?

1:44 PM  
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6:13 PM  

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