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! :)