Saturday, September 15, 2012

Damned if I could stop negating ...

Ben Yagoda has a post at Lingua Franca responding to a reader who bristles at the phrase “one of the only.” He defends it as an idiom that we don't parse logically, like "can't help but think" and "could care less," but have no trouble understanding.

That's not good enough for truly devoted nitpickers, who continue to patiently explain that "I could care less" is a monstrous inversion of meaning. But the fact is, we accept flaws in logic much larger than this when we're engaged in reading or listening, rather than proofreading or peeving.

I was reminded of this by a story last month in the New York Times Magazine, in which Sarah Hepola described her struggles as an editor of confessional writing. Hepola wrote that she found herself "excising the grimmest parts of personal essays, torn between my desire to protect the human being and my knowledge that such unforgettable detail would boost a story’s click-through rate." Then came a paragraph with a couple of little speed bumps:
"This feels a little unprocessed," I told writers who shared their tales of date rape and eating disorders, but it was hard to deny that the internal chaos, that fog of confusion, could make for compelling reading, like dispatches from inside a siege. Yet "unprocessed" was exactly what [Cat] Marnell’s pieces were, and damned if I couldn’t stop devouring them.
That last clause is where I paused: "damned if I couldn’t stop devouring them.” The usual way to say what she means is "damned if I could stop,” which translates as “I couldn’t.” The idiom involves swearing to the truth of your report: In full, it's something like  “I’ll be damned (as a liar) if I (say I) could stop.” That is: "I couldn’t stop."

And that's not the only misnegation. Both sentences in Hepola's paragraph say the same thing, in essence: Personal train wreck tales are both repellent and riveting. But for some reason the word that connects them is "Yet," as if the second sentence somehow qualified or contradicted the first, when it actually supports it; taking out the "yet" is a clear improvement. (Did an editor insert it, I wonder?) 

But I'm not surprised that the wording passed unnoticed. By this point, a reader knows what Hepola's intending to say, and the "literal" reading would make no sense. As Mark Liberman and other Language Loggers have shown repeatedly, "our poor old monkey brains are not quite evolved enough" to handle such complexity; most of the time, we just take in the message we were meant to receive and ignore the logical glitches.
I’m not arguing that "getting the meaning across" is all that matters; if I thought that, I wouldn’t have become an editor. But monkey minds or not, we're smart enough to understand "one of the only people to have played in the NBA and for a major-league baseball team." Anyone interested in improving the language could easily find bigger fish to fry.


Bryan M. White said...

Seems to me that the "yet" is there because she's trying to say that despite her professional objections, she was riveted. However, it's all so oddly worded that it doesn't quite come off the way it's supposed to. The last sentence would be somewhat better as, "Yet, as "unprocessed" as Mernell's pieces were, I'd be damned if I could stop reading them." Even that doesn't quite work though, because she's already mentioned that the pieces were compelling in the preceding sentence.

Yeah, it's a bit of a mess to untangle, but as you said, at the end of the day we know what she means.

q-pheevr said...

In full, it's something like “I’ll be damned (as a liar) if I (say I) could stop.”

I've always thought of it as more like “I’ll be damned (as a liar) if I could stop (because I hereby assert that I couldn't).” But of course it works out to the same thing.

Gregory Lee said...

if I thought that, I wouldn’t have become an editor

Why is it "thought", rather than "would have thought" or "had thought"? What do such choices have to do with logic?

Bryan M. White said...

@Gregory: I would assume that she said "thought" because her position on the matter is ongoing. "Had thought" makes it sound like the issue is just strictly what she was thinking at the time that she decided to become an editor.

Sidders said...

But what's wrong with "one of he few"?

Sidders said...

But what's wrong with "one of he few"?

Anonymous said...

"One of the few" isn't wrong - the phrase in question was "one of the only", since "only" implies "only one".

Kate (Derby, UK)